Commentary | Is there a ‘black vote’?

The reductiveness of the identity vote rhetoric

“Our people died for this. Martin Luther King died for this. I’m behind anyone who’s going to listen and speak up for us – and I think we need to believe in a leader like Bernie Sanders.” With these words, Erica Garner, daughter of police brutality victim Eric Garner who was murdered by a New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer in 2014, publicly pledged her support for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Garner’s statments appeared in a February 11 advertisement from the Sanders camp, the first to explicitly link Sanders with the Black Lives Matter movement. The ad was oriented around Sanders’s advocacy challenging police brutality against black and Latino people in the U.S., and featured him saying, “I want to see an America where, when young black men walk down the street, they will not be harassed by police officers, they will not be killed, they will not be shot.”

The ad’s power lay in the fact that Garner, someone so close to the issue who has had to experience firsthand the devastation of losing a parent to racist police violence, expressed her steadfast conviction that Sanders would be the right candidate for president of the U.S.. So, if someone who stands at the centre of the Black Lives Matter movement has put their faith in Bernie Sanders, the conclusion to draw from the ad would be that the audience should, too.

On February 17, Hillary Clinton was joined at a Chicago rally by Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, whose alleged suicide is believed by many to actually have been murder at the hands of racist police officers. Reed-Veal expressed her support for Clinton, saying, “Here’s a woman who has shown time and time again, that she has the skill, experience, and staying power more than twenty years in.”

Clinton’s supporters at the rally expressed confidence that she would address the issue of racist police violence were she to become president. The same confidence that some members of the Black Lives Matter movement extended to Sanders had now been offered to Clinton, by other prominent activists whose voices have been considered equally as valuable. This divide within the Black Lives Matter movement, and to a greater extent within the black American activist and intellectual communities, has brought one difficult question to the forefront of the 2016 Democratic primaries: which candidate has secured the ‘black vote?’

The heavy discussion surrounding the ‘black vote’ is not unique to the 2016 elections – it was at the heart of the 2008 Clinton versus Obama primaries, and was even an issue when Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill Clinton was in office in the 1990s. Rhetoric around the black vote has tested decades-old loyalties, and on occasion has been persuasive enough to make voters shift their allegiance from one candidate to another. At the heart of the discussion of the black vote, and to a lesser extent (although equally important) the Latino vote, lies the issue of identity politics – do people of colour have an obligation to vote for the candidate who is seen as the better candidate for people of colour?

In the past few months, several (white) feminists have pledged their support to Hillary Clinton in a manner so intense that they’ve condemned any woman who doesn’t do so as being inherently anti-feminist. Prominent feminist and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rather ominously declared that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” at a rally in early February. In a similar manner, the politics of the voting tendencies of people of colour threaten to marginalize any people of colour who don’t support the popular candidate, perhaps casting them aside as being ‘bad’ people of colour – as if all people of colour have homogeneous voting practices that are decided en masse at a secret people of colour meeting every election season.

Reverend Al Sharpton, prominent black American civil rights activist and media figure, said recently that “no one can deliver the black vote. No one speaks for everybody in the black community.” And, considering the matter on even the shallowest level, he’s right – no one candidate can claim to have the entirety of the more than thirty million black citizens currently residing in the U.S. on their side.

Despite that, there has been heavy focus on the conversation around both candidates “pandering” to the black vote as the election season goes on. When Bernie Sanders brings up the epidemic of racist police violence in America, it’s “pandering.” When Hillary Clinton talks about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s “pandering.” If that’s the case, then it seems like every American president preceding Barack Obama has been “pandering” to the white vote. But no one talks about it like that – because that’s just ridiculous.

If there were to be a mass black vote that promised the loyalty of every black voter in America, both Hillary and Bernie would stand a good chance of being the favourite.

The Clintons have been considered favourably by some in the black community since Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s – that’s a twenty-year loyalty that may not likely be broken by the arrival of one new candidate. But on the flipside, Bill Clinton’s policies during his presidency were considered by many to be devastating to the black community, with his ‘tough on crime’ measures disproportionately incarcerating black and Latino men, and bringing the school-to-prison pipeline to new heights.

Hillary Clinton strongly supported and lobbied for these policies during her husband’s reign, even perpetuating the discourse of inherent criminalization of black youth. In her current campaign, she has made an effort to acknowledge and rectify the mistakes of her husband’s term in office, vowing to take action against the disproportionate incarceration of black people and to improve the living standards of poor black youth across the country.

Bernie Sanders, now 74 years old, was a prominent member of the civil rights movement during the time of Martin Luther King Jr. himself. At a recent rally, Sanders asked members of the audience whether any of them had participated in King’s march on Washington in 1963. When no hands went up, he said to the audience, “It makes me feel really old. I was there.” And he was there – he was a supporter of King’s non-violent means of protest, and was an advocate for the desegregation of housing in Chicago as a student.

But while Sanders was very much present at the local, grassroots level, he hasn’t had the chance to build as much of a large-scale alliance with prominent black politicians in America. Hillary Clinton has officially received the support of institutional leaders like the Congressional Black Caucus, while Bernie Sanders has been publicly supported by renowned black activists, union leaders, and intellectuals.

With this divide between Sanders’s and Clinton’s black supporters, is it fair to perpetuate the rhetoric of the black vote? At this point in the election, the truth may be that both Sanders and Clinton have facets of their campaigns that may be appealing and facets that could be considered significant drawbacks to black voters across the country. And of course, this isn’t even taking into consideration the very real fact that there are black Republican voters in America. Ultimately, when examining the complexities of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ identity politics in the 2016 election, it seems that discourse on a homogeneous black vote does nothing but detract from the real conversation about racial justice, reducing the complexities of black life in America to a matter of ballot.

Minority Report is a column that deconstructs racism through an intersectional lens. Inori Roy-Khan can be reached at