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The Rocky History of Bernie Sanders and the Black Vote

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Most black voters haven't supported Bernie Sanders. The question is: why? (Light Brigading/Flickr)

Whether you’re seriously feeling the Bern or are a sideline election observer, chances are you’ve probably heard Bernie Sanders talking about superdelegates this primary season. It's been a major talking (or yelling) point during his campaign.

Sanders wants to totally overhaul the primary system, a change that would include doing away with superdelegates and allowing independents and Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries.

You know who's not okay with this? The Congressional Black Caucus. This group of respected black congressmembers believes that Sanders' proposed plans are tone-deaf and would actually reverse decades of progress for minority voters in America.

On June 18th, members of the CBC penned a letter to Democratic Party leaders, including Sanders. It was the latest development in the progressive candidate's long--and fraught--relationship with black Democrats.

So, what’s a superdelegate, anyway?

To earn the Democratic nomination, a candidate must win the votes of at least 2,383 delegates (there are 4,765 up for grabs). Most delegates are elected, and pledge to represent their state at the Democratic party convention.

The party also has superdelegates--unpledged men and women who are usually big shot, elder Democrats. They aren't bound to a specific state, and can vote for the Democratic candidate of their choice. Right now, Clinton has 591 delegates to Sanders' 48--many of whom pledged their support before the primary season kicked off.

Sanders doesn't think this is fair, and has complained (a lot) about this "dumb" system.

In some cases, superdelegates didn't switch their votes to support Sanders in states where he won the popular vote. For example, Sanders defeated Clinton by over 10% of the vote in Wyoming, but all four of the state's superdelegates backed Clinton--leaving the total delegate count at 7 for Sanders and 11 for Clinton.

Democratic leaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Governor Howard Dean have come out against the superdelegate system--Warren even said "I'm a superdelegate and I don't believe in superdelegates."

The only way Sanders could possibly win the nomination at this point would be to get superdelegates to switch sides and vote for him.

Hillary Clinton is the party's presumptive nominee. While Sanders may not become president in 2017, he hopes that his political revolution will continue--and that involves an overhaul of how we elect presidents in America.

Why are members of the CBC against Sanders' primary plans?

The Congressional Black Caucus was founded in the 1970s and represents black members of Congress. In their June 18th letter to Democratic leaders, CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield wrote:

“The Democratic Members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently voted unanimously to oppose any suggestion or idea to eliminate the category of Unpledged Delegate to the Democratic National Convention (aka Super Delegates) and the creation of uniform open primaries in all states.”

Butterfield also wrote that “allowing independent or Republican voters to participate in the Democratic primary would dilute minority voting strength in many districts across the country.”

Democratic South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn has been involved in delegate selection since 1972. He knows how important the current delegate and primary system is for minority voters. He wrote his own letter:

"Let me be clear, our delegate selection process is not rigged. It is transparent to the public and open for participation for all who wish to declare themselves."

Sanders' activist history has been debated

Bernie Sanders has been vocal about his civil rights activism over the decades. Earlier this year, photo and video of his 1963 arrest in Chicago, showing him being dragged away by police after protesting against segregated schools, went viral.

He even made his civil rights work a talking point at the Democratic debates--he spoke about attending Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

But Congressman John Lewis--an iconic civil rights leader--publicly stated that he never saw Sanders at the march or as part of the movement. He later clarified his remarks:

"I said that when I was leading and was at the center of pivotal actions within the Civil Rights Movement, I did not meet Sen. Bernie Sanders at any time. The fact that I did not meet him in the movement does not mean I doubted that Sen. Sanders participated in the Civil Rights Movement, neither was I attempting to disparage his activism. Thousands sacrificed in the 1960s whose names we will never know, and I have always given honor to their contribution."

Sanders struggled to get black votes, especially in the South

When Hillary Clinton swept early primaries in Southern states, Sanders said that the early onslaught of primaries in states like South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama "distorts reality."

Black Southerners, however, are a historically liberal group of voters who have elected Democrats like G.K. Butterfield and James Clyburn.

Doug Thornell, a former communications director for the CBC, said:

"He [Sanders] seemed to have a lack of understanding or lack of relationships with black leaders that you saw ultimately hurt him in South Carolina and other states with big black electorates. And this is something that the CBC is going to be very passionate and push back against. This is a way that African-American officials can represent their district and have a say in the process. They're not going to go along with this at all."

Some have even argued that Sanders is downright tone-deaf and dismissive towards the South and towards black Americans.

Or worse.

There was that time Tim Robbins said that winning the South Carolina primary is as meaningful as "winning Guam"--at a Bernie Sanders rally.

Some wondered if this was another instance of the Sanders camp being dismissive of black Southern voters--instead of reaching out to better understand this vital, and important, demographic group.

During the primary, Clinton won a huge majority of the black vote, though Sanders did better among young African Americans. Let's see how all this plays out in the general election.

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The Rocky History of Bernie Sanders and the Black Vote

Clementine Amidon

Clementine is a graduate of Mount Holyoke, where she studied English and French. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, the New York Observer, USA Today, BUST, and Odyssey. Clementine is an undercover short story writer, and in her spare time she’s on a quest to craft the perfect tweet.

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