Cornel West Endorses Bernie Sanders, but Will it Make a Difference with Black Voters?

Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate and socialist Senator from Vermont, just received an important endorsement from Dr. Cornel West, the prominent Black scholar and social activist.

For a candidate who has taken steps to embrace the #BlackLivesMatter movement and enlist their support–including hiring a Black woman activist as his press secretary and crafting a racial justice platform– a nod from West could provide inroads to Black voters.

“[The West endorsement] could be the shot in the arm Sanders needs to win over black voters who remain skeptical of his credentials on black issues,” Aaron Morrison wrote in the International Business Times. “But contrary to the myth African-Americans vote together for the same Democratic candidate, the community is likely to continue scrutinizing White House hopefuls in both parties regardless of high-profile endorsements. Support of a prominent figure like West only helps Sanders if he brings to the campaign trail a message that resonates with blacks.”

A professor at Union Theological Seminary and a former Princeton and Harvard professor, West said the following in a Facebook post:

My endorsement of Brother Bernie in the primaries is not an affirmation of the neo-liberal Democratic Party or a downplaying of the immorality of the ugly Israeli occupation of Palestinians. I do so because he is a long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years. Now is the time for his prophetic voice to be heard across our crisis-ridden country, even as we push him with integrity toward a more comprehensive vision of freedom for all.”

Dr. Cornel West was arrested in Ferguson, MO during the “Moral Monday” march, October 13, 2014.

Dr. Cornel West was arrested in Ferguson, MO during the “Moral Monday” march, October 13, 2014.

West, a longtime sanders supporter who has been active in social protest of late and was arrested during events in Ferguson, brings street cred to the presidential candidate. His endorsement comes weeks after #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupted former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sanders at the July Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix. Activists also interrupted a Sanders event in Seattle earlier this month.

Sanders has been received by Black voters with skepticism. While he has drawn large crowds, his events have been perceived as “white spaces” due to the support he is receiving largely from white progressives and liberals. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sanders’ home state of Vermont is among the whitest states in the nation, with a population that is 95 percent white and 1 percent Black.  Although he points to his involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, his political platform had focused on economic and class issues that appeal to the white left.  A new generation of Black activists wants to know what Sanders—and other candidates—have done for them lately on issues that concern them.

Dr. West, who was once a supporter of the president and subsequently became highly critical of Obama’s treatment of issues affecting the Black community, believes Sanders’ benefit to Black America is his interest in investing in poor and working people, and fighting against the excesses of Wall Street.

However, the endorsement also poses risks for Sanders among Black voters, given that West drew the ire of some in the Black community when he lashed out at Obama for being afraid to challenge white supremacy, poverty and the criminal justice system, and called him the “first n*gger-ized president.”  West also called Obama “a disastrous response to a catastrophe,” among other things.  Of course, West has not been the only Black critic of the president, though he has been among the most vocal.  The president has high approval ratings among the Black electorate.

According to an August 2015 Gallup survey, Hillary Clinton had a 68 percent net favorability rating among African Americans.  The poll gives Sanders a 23 percent favorability rating. While he trails Clinton, polls show Sanders surging in primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

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