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The Curious Blackness of Iowa Week

Why was Hillary Clinton in a black church in Philadelphia? Why did Bernie Sanders share the stage with Cornel West?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My pastor was skeptical at first. Was Hillary Clinton for real? She convened a private summit with nearly 50 black ministers at his Philadelphia church just five days before the Iowa caucuses, without even a guaranteed endorsement from the group.

Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler had been in touch for several weeks with the Clinton campaign about hosting a media-free meeting with African American preachers from all over the nation at Philly’s landmark Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Tyler was appointed pastor mere weeks after President Obama won the 2008 election. It promised to be nothing like Donald Trump’s black pastor stunt in December. But he still wasn’t sure it was going down until the Secret Service called about sweeping the building. “I really did not think it would happen,” Tyler told me a few days after it did. The discussion attracted “some of the most significant African American clergy persons in the country,” he said. He’s right; the list of attendees, from Otis Moss Jr. to Cynthia Hale to Corletta Vaughn, was packed with stars of the black pulpit.

In an ordinary election week, we wouldn’t even ask why a Democratic candidate would take the time to show up at this church the way she did last Wednesday night—a savvy politician who knew the names of the pastor’s daughters and was able to shout out the long-time office manager. Mother Bethel is, after all, holy ground for African Americans. The city historical marker on the sidewalk outside notes that no other piece of land in this nation has been continuously owned for as long as the ground where Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands. Founded in 1787, it is where the denomination was born. (I served as a trustee there for years under Tyler, and about a year before his arrival I met my wife in the sanctuary directly upstairs.)

When I learned of the gathering the following day, it struck me immediately as an odd choice for any presidential candidate at this time of the year. Yes, Clinton had also flown back east for a fundraiser that same night with Jon Bon Jovi that was hosted by an investment firm. But taking time to talk to 50 black preachers during Iowa Week raised some eyebrows. This is the part of the election year when presidential hopefuls typically try to engage every potential supporter and kiss the cherubic face of every infant she or he can find in Iowa. Nearly all of them, caucus-goers and baby cheeks alike, are white

After a brief opening statement—in which Clinton mentioned the Flint water contamination crisis and its racially disparate impact—Tyler says the candidate took a series of questions from the reverends on topics like public education and black unemployment. They expressed skepticism not only about her candidacy, but her authenticity with regard to black concerns, given her propagation of the “superpredator” myth during the push for her husband’s 1994 crime bill, one that undergirds the mass incarceration state Clinton has pledged to address as president. “These were not softball questions these people were asking,” Tyler said. But he left impressed. “I am not naive; I’ve been around politicians enough, so I get it. But I will say that the person who I spent that time with was drastically different than the person you see described on television.”

He didn’t tell me whether anyone asked her why she was in a Philadelphia church meeting hall talking to black preachers, and not in the Midwest campaigning with caucus voters. But it made sense in the same way that Bernie Sanders’s having Cornel West speak in Iowa last week made sense: They want black surrogates to convey their core philosophies about governance. Thing is, the audiences are very different.

There was some hullabaloo over the weekend over an above-the-title book blurb that Sanders provided for liberal radio host Bill Press’s new book, Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down. On the cover, Sanders’s blurb is a bit vague: “Bill Press makes the case … Read this book.” Case for what? You learn more when you read the whole quote in context:  

Bill Press makes the case why, long after taking the oath of office, the next president of the United States must keep rallying the people who elected him or her on behalf of progressive causes. That is the only way real change will happen. Read this book. 

That’s certainly not the slam on Obama as some interpreted it, and the campaign’s defense of the blurb echoed that. “The next president can try to achieve bold proposals because of the foundation they put in place,” said Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs in a statement. “Obviously, telling someone to read a book doesn’t mean you agree with everything that’s in the book.” It seems blurbs, like retweets, do not necessarily signify endorsements.

The fact that Sanders had West, the Princeton professor and author of Race Matters, on stage with him in Iowa this past weekend was not surprising. Sanders has been a critic of the Obama years, and West, a former Obama surrogate himself, has long been a vociferous critic of the president, decrying his use of drone warfare and lack of accomplishments for African Americans. But as Michael Eric Dyson detailed in New Republic last spring, West has frequently undermined his own valid policy critiques with crude challenges to Obama’s racial authenticity. He told told Truthdig in 2011 that the president “has a certain fear of free black men.” Three years ago, he referred to Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” and in 2014 called him a “brown-faced Clinton.” In June, West said on CNN that Obama has become the first “niggerized president”; West defined “niggerized” as “a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy.” 

These are statements that a black electorate that values the Obama legacy, with all its warts, doesn’t easily forget. West personifies an antipathy toward Obama that the wide majority of black voters don’t share, and by associating with West, Sanders risks alienating those voters. Clinton herself has been quite vocal of late, sometimes to a fault, about protecting Obama’s accomplishments. Given that, assigning the president’s loudest black critic to help you with your run for the Democratic nomination seems strategically unwise.

Cornel West speaks at a Sanders rally in Davenport, Iowa last Friday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

But though Sanders sent West to lead off his recently launched tour of historically black colleges and universities, it isn’t the racial aspect of West’s message that Sanders stands to benefit from. It’s smart to have the professor on Sanders’s team for one key reason: West is there to inspire a different kind of anger in white people. Sanders’s largely white, male, and self-identified progressive fan base is surely eating up the professor’s fiery rhetoric placing the candidate in the tradition of past civil rights leaders while admonishing the Obama record and warning that Clinton is a progressive-come-lately. (See Charles Pierce’s laudatory recap of West’s Iowa speech for Sanders three months ago.) You can also see why Sanders would want West with him: He represents an absolutist, uncompromising view of progressivism. It is the foundation for the political revolution he seeks to incite.

Sanders is a compelling political figure in this political moment precisely because he seeks to paint himself as an Obama-style underdog while remaining thoroughly critical of Obama’s legacy. He is trying to evoke the 2008 “Yes We Can” campaign while seeking to improve upon it, feeding the progressive change on Wall Street and beyond that he feels went left unaddressed during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. And the way he’s inspiring people is less with dovish talk of reconciliation between the parties—something Obama himself just admitted has failed—and more with a rage against the machine.

I’ve argued why the Sanders approach doesn’t serve the needs and wants of black and Latino voters in this election cycle. While I’d certainly include West in that critique, it doesn’t apply to the electorate at large. Sometimes, a candidate needs to do something that appears unconventional and perhaps even unwise at the moment, with the promise of future electoral benefits.

Listening to Tyler detail how the meeting proceeded over two hours, I thought about a Friday Washington Post report detailing how the Clinton campaign has been quietly doing the most to ensure their so-called “March firewall” is upheld. Obviously, she wants a win on Monday. But say Sanders upsets her in Iowa, then blows her out, as expected, in New Hampshire. That will make a lot of folks in Clintonland, no doubt including the Democratic National Committee, nervous—even as the race heads to more diverse states like South Carolina. Despite the fact that a reputed Sanders advantage in enthusiasm isn’t borne out by the polls in Iowa, and no one’s cast a vote yet, the Clinton folks are seeking to avoid a 2008 repeat. They’re using help from the SEIU and Planned Parenthood to get the word out. 

Wednesday night showed that she is counting on black clergy to do the same for her. We can debate the modern-day role of the black church in both civil rights and political activism, and how their congregations are aging perceptibly. But there is a reason these politicians, Democrats especially, maintain the tradition of visiting these black churches to urge them to show up at the polls. These preachers have roots in the African American communities they tend to; they know them intimately. And Tyler feels he knows what they want in 2016.

“At this point, in this election, it is absolutely about results for black people,” Tyler said, noting with worry the need to counteract a Congress with Republican control in both houses and a Supreme Court tilting right under Chief Justice John Roberts. “We have broken through the glass ceiling; I continue to rejoice in President Obama’s election. But we have to have a president who can deliver on things that are important for us.” 

One of those priorities is historically black colleges and universities. Clinton reminded those attending the Mother Bethel summit that she is pledging a $25 billion fund for all private HBCUs, something that means a great deal to Tyler, a graduate of two of them: Clark Atlanta University and Payne Theological Seminary. “These schools are dying,” he told me. “I don’t see any other candidates, certainly from the other political party, talking about that kind of major investment in our schools.” Noting how HBCU graduates have changed our nation, Tyler said “they’re not just critical to black success. They’re critical to American success.”

Clinton’s visit to Mother Bethel was certainly filled with political purpose, as was her Saturday morning MSNBC op-ed about the Flint water crisis and her demand, hours later, that one of the four newly announced Democratic debates take place in the Michigan city. But in a week when catering openly to white voters is not only understandable but mandatory, the former secretary of state gave an indication of how she plans to play the long game in this primary—and showed that despite her massive advantage among voters of color, she’s not taking them for granted. She’d better not, since she is the only one in the entire presidential race with ground to lose in that regard. Even as we hype up the nearly monochromatic Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Clinton knows the black vote is her best hope for eventual nomination. 

While Tyler became one of 28 clergy members present to endorse Clinton following the meeting, he is expecting her to be a vital functionary and ally for black priorities rather than a movement leader that seeks to rally us to her cause. 

“We’ve had a black president for eight years,” Tyler told me. “His presidency has proven how deeply dug in institutionalized racism is. Who the president is [remains] simply one part of a larger game plan black people have to have in America. We cannot look to the presidency to solve these problems for us.”