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Clinton Versus Sanders: The Rift Between Older And Younger Black Voters

Hillary Clinton takes a photograph with Jordan Daniels, 11, of Denmark, S.C., during a town hall Friday.
Jacquelyn Martin
Hillary Clinton takes a photograph with Jordan Daniels, 11, of Denmark, S.C., during a town hall Friday.

This past Sunday during 11 a.m. worship service at Bible Way Church of Atlas Road in Columbia, S.C., there was a short celebration of Black History Month. The church honored John Wesley Matthews Jr., a long-serving black state senator.

After Matthews accepted an award, the pastor of the church, Darrell Jackson Sr., took time to acknowledge another special guest.

"There are people that touch your lives," he told the congregation from the pulpit, as the organist softly played. "There are people that are so powerful and so great, and you'd never know it because they don't promote it."

He was talking about Carol Willis, whom he called Bill Clinton's "right hand" during Clinton's time as governor of Arkansas and, according to Jackson, "his No. 1 chief African-American adviser" when Clinton became president.

"There was a running joke that the most powerful man in America was a country boy from Arkansas named Carol Willis that nobody ... knows," Jackson joked. "If you want Bill Clinton to do anything, you've got to go through Carol Willis."

Jackson urged Willis to stand and be recognized, and as he stood, the crowd clapped for him as well — in fact, they might have given him an even warmer reception than they gave Sen. Matthews, the Black History Month honoree.

It spoke to what many in Black South Carolina see as fact: This is Clinton Country.

Over the past several months, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been trying to change that. As South Carolina's Democratic primary approaches — a primary in which black voters regularly make up half or more of the electorate — he is working hard to convince black voters who have known the Clintons for years, if not decades, to support him and not Hillary Clinton.

Sanders' press secretary, Symone Sanders, is affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. He's gotten endorsements from rapper Killer Mike and Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed by a New York City police officer and became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter. Sanders touches on racial inequality during all of his stump speeches.

Black public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander have gone public decrying the policies of the Clinton administration and saying they'll vote for Sanders. And, as NPR previously reported, some young black voters in South Carolina are choosing to support Sanders, also citing major problems with Bill Clinton's administration, namely his 1994 crime bill and his 1996 welfare-reform bill. (Sanders voted for the crime bill in 1994, and against the welfare reform bill.)

One could see a wave of Sanders momentum sweeping up black votes throughout South Carolina. But polling suggests Clinton still has a sizable lead with blacks in the Palmetto State, even though it's been shrinking in recent months.

After the Sunday service at the Bible Way church, that lead was evident.

For 62-year-old Fannie Lot, the choice between Clinton and Sanders is a no-brainer, in large part because of Clinton's experience.

"She did an excellent job as the governor's wife," she told NPR. "She did an excellent job as the first lady in the White House. She did an excellent job as the secretary of state. And she did an excellent job as a senator."

Elimuel Porterfield said Clinton would be an extension of Barack Obama's presidency.

"We need to get somebody that's going to continue the things that President Obama has started," she said, adding, "She's been there. She knows his policies. ... So she knows what's going on. We don't need to start all over again."

Obama's approval rating with black voters regularly hovers over 90 percent. And Porter and other voters NPR spoke with seemed to feel a need to defend and support Clinton, just as strongly as they do Obama.

"I didn't like the way he was being treated, and I don't like the way she's being treated," 65-year-old Queen Lewis said of the way Republicans and news outlets like Fox treat Obama and Clinton. "They don't have nobody on that podium that can beat Hillary Clinton. And they know this. So that's why they have all that negative stuff out there. Her emails? They pick one little thing after another."

Where many Sanders supporters have pointed out Bill Clinton's record as president as a reason not to support Hillary Clinton, several black voters at Bible Way saw the former president as an asset. They spoke of knowing him, meeting him and working on his campaign.

Kataya Davis, 32, joked about the former president's special relationship with many black Americans: "Bill Clinton? That's my cousin," she said.

If these voters are an indication, it would seem Clinton has nothing to worry about on Feb. 27. But they are not the only indication, and as results from Iowa and New Hampshire showed, polls often miss the mark come time to vote.

Darrell Jackson Sr., the pastor of Bible Way and a staunch Clinton supporter, admits that even in his own family, there are divisions.

"My cousin, who's 26 years old, lives in Los Angeles, came to visit last week. He said, 'I'm going for Bernie Sanders.' I said, 'That's great, man,' " Jackson recalled.

Jackson said anything that motivates young people, particularly young black people, to vote is good by him. He also sees a real competition for black votes between Clinton and Sanders as good for the black community.

"I think that's healthy," he said, adding, "I think it's healthy for the African-American community to have our vote contested. Because when there is no contest, we are often taken for granted."

He continued, "Where would we be if there was not a contested Democratic primary? The issue of Black Lives Matter wouldn't even be on the table. ... The views of Bernie Sanders, the views of Hillary Clinton are both put on the forefront. Both of them are made to address and to make promises that can be recorded on, 'What will you do for the African-American community?' We all win then."

However divided Democratic African-American voters are over Clinton or Sanders, Emory University professor Andra Gillespie says it's normal.

"Minority communities are actually very diverse," she told NPR. "People want women to be a monolith. They really never were. People have talked about African-Americans or Latinos as if they were a monolith, and the truth is that's never been the case. This election is reminding us that there is no group that's a monolith."

Jackson thinks Sanders would need to come close to the record turnout Obama received in 2008 to win. And, that, Jackson said, might be difficult.

"People turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama — and I don't say this disparagingly — because he looked like them," he said.

"They loved his views of hope and the audacity of hope, but at the end of the day in South Carolina, they got a chance to vote for somebody who looked like them, [people who] never thought that would happen. People are turning out for Bernie Sanders because they think he thinks like them."

But Jackson still made no predictions for South Carolina's Democratic primary or the state's black vote.

"I don't know, and no one can tell you, and all the so-called experts? Throw them away," Jackson said. "They have no idea. And we will have no idea until the evening of the 27th."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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