South Carolina Black Voters Not Feelin’ the Bern

Sorry, but Sanders doesn’t think like mainstream black voters. The tell is Cornel West. He hates Obama. We do not.

Iowa and New Hampshire had their turns in the spotlight, and Nevada comes this Saturday. And a week after that, my state, South Carolina, will host its own Democratic primary. Compared to those first two states, ours is highly diverse. Battle ground, trial phase—call it what you will—South Carolina, once a crucible of the civil rights movement and Barack Obama’s surge, can help vet the candidate best aligned with the black community.

Bernie Sanders is not that candidate—not next to Hillary Clinton. From his bouts with the president to the laws he contested to the company he keeps, Sanders raises alarm bells for Obama supporters, especially those from the African-American community.

Back in 2012, while still a proud Independent, Sanders took a page from the Republican playbook and called for a primary challenge to Obama’s presidency. His aim: to contrast “a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing,” as if to say affordable health care and safe cities are not “progressive” enough goals. The Democrats I know would disagree.

That anti-Obama jab followed an earlier resistance to the Affordable Care Act, now considered President Obama’s greatest legacy. Back in 2009, coming from the far left wing, Sanders held out on voting “yes,” hoping instead for an impossible ideal. Over 200,000 South Carolinians now have quality, affordable health insurance through Obamacare. If Sanders fulfills his campaign promise and starts those talks from a blank slate, then he risks undoing years of progress.

Improving health care matters greatly to our community. It’s no secret that African Americans die earlier than whites and suffer in larger numbers from diseases like diabetes and heart disease. We also die twice as often from gun violence. In Charleston County alone, blacks accounted for 29 percent of the population in 2014 but claimed 78 percent of gun violence deaths. We demand equality where our lives are at stake, and on that note Sanders has a mixed record on gun safety, having opposed reforms that Obama now pushes.

The Vermont senator once voted for legislation that allowed the Charleston shooter to buy a gun despite a clerical error—the now-infamous “Charleston Loophole.” More recently, he voted down legislation meant to shield gun makers from victim lawsuits. When President Obama last month refused to back “any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform,” he may well have been referring to Sanders.

In what perhaps struck the candidate as an act of solidarity, Sanders also chose Cornel West as liaison to South Carolina’s black voters. As The Washington Post puts it, West serves as Sanders’s “controversial traveling companion” and “has been highly critical of President Obama.” That’s an understatement. Cornel West hates President Obama. He once called the president “a brown-faced Clinton,” “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” and a “counterfeit” progressive.

My own father, Cleveland Sellers, was a real civil rights-era activist, as were Jesse Jackson and Rev. Joseph A. Darby. All of them are alive and well with deep South Carolina roots and could have been surrogates for Sen. Sanders. So of all the black leaders Sanders could have chosen, why West? West is a scholar, sure, but his views are extreme, and they clash with much of the pro-Obama black community.

Bernie Sanders means well, and his calls for income equality rightly resonate with Democratic voters. But certain issues—gun violence and health care among them—and certain viewpoints—Cornel West’s not among them—appeal specifically to most African Americans. My vote goes to someone who supports President Obama and intends to wholly and ambitiously build on his legacy. That someone is not Bernie Sanders.