CITIZEN GREEN: Bernie and ‘the support of the guys in the barbershop’

Killer Mike makes the case for Sanders at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. (photo by Tony Crider)

It would be hard to imagine a more conducive setting for Bernie Sanders to make his pitch to black voters in Greensboro than Prestige Barber College on Phillips Avenue, or a more effective ambassador than Killer Mike, who himself owns a string of barbershops in Atlanta.

While Joe Biden is the overwhelming favorite among older African-American voters, Sanders holds the edge with black millennials, according to a recent poll by Morning Consult. And he found a receptive audience at Prestige Barber College before moving on to a town-hall at Bennett College on Sept. 20.

“He established a lot of credibility with me,” CJ Brinson, a youth minister at Genesis Baptist Church, reflected after Sanders’ visit.

Brinson told me that he typically supports black candidates because he believes he’s in a better position to hold them accountable. But he’s making an exception in the case of Sanders, whose campaign is platforming not only Killer Mike, but also Cornel West, an outspoken antiracist, Adolph Reed, an early critic of black neoliberalism, and Nina Turner, who is a national co-chair of the campaign.

“When you have Bernie surrounded by black leftists who have been branded radicals, that gives me a feeling we have leverage,” Brinson said. And while other presidential candidates stand beside civil rights icons, Brinson said black millennials respect the fact that Sanders’ “ass was drug in the streets.” The evidence was on the T-shirt for sale in the vendor zone outside Bennett College, showing a 21-year-old Sanders lurching forward while two police officers grabbed his arms during a 1963 protest against school segregation in Chicago.

Killer Mike, aka Mike Render, who is also a popular rapper and artist, talked about Sanders’ support for marijuana decriminalization, and how that could prevent his 17-year-old son from potentially losing a college scholarship if he were to be arrested for a frivolous drug charge. He talked about the difference Medicare-for-all would make to his barbershop clients who tell him they’re not getting their blood pressure or prostates checked because they’re uninsured.

“There’s two ways that he directly in a positive way affects us,” Mike said. “I think that deserves, if nothing else, the support of the guys in the barbershop.”

Mike closed his remarks by imploring his audience of grassroots black influencers: “I want to encourage the barbershop because nothing happens without the barbershop. You don’t know which Nikes are cool. You don’t know which restaurant to eat at. You don’t know what to do if you don’t hear from the barbershop. So, I’m encouraging black people in the barbershop, especially our black barbers, to start to talk to your customers about how his campaign affects them on a daily basis. We see black boys catching BS cases on a daily basis. We say we need someone who understands that. Here we have that.”

Brinson told me Sanders sealed the deal with him through his answer to a question by Gene Blackmon, the owner of Prestige Barber College, who asked the candidate if he has “a strategic plan to funnel money into black businesses in the black community.”

Sanders responded by saying that he supports a program known as the “10/20/30 Plan” devised by US Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), which would require that 10 percent of federal program funding be set aside for census tracts where at least 20 percent of residents are living in poverty. While Sanders noted that economically distressed communities “are more often than not African American,” the funding formula would also benefit predominantly white counties in Kentucky, predominantly Latinx counties in New Mexico and predominantly Native American counties in South Dakota.

Sanders has previously discussed his support for the 10/20/30 Plan in the context of reparations for slavery. Incidentally, Sen. Cory Booker — one of Sanders’ opponents in the Democratic presidential primary — introduced anti-poverty legislation in April with Clyburn that incorporates the 10/20/30 plan.

“So, to answer your question, there will be targeted — we’re talking about tens and tens of billions of dollars going to African-American communities,” Sanders said in Greensboro.

Blackmon pressed him on the specifics.

“Okay, would it be allocated or designated to black men and women only?” he asked. “Or will a ‘minority’ tag allow white women to come in and get some of that money?”

It was a sticking point that resonated for many in the room, with people calling out, “Come on,” and “Say it!” to reinforce Blackmon’s question.

“This is for the African-American community,” Sanders said quietly.

Byron Gladden, a Guilford County School Board member sharing the campaign appearance on Facebook Live, expressed satisfaction.

“Specifically,” he said. “All right.”

Various descriptions of the 10/20/30 Plan that I found on lawmakers’ websites and news reports don’t mention any stipulation about the race of the contractors or agencies receiving the funds, only criteria for the areas where the investment would be made. So, it seems plausible that a contractor providing infrastructure for internet access in east Greensboro might well be a white person. The Sanders campaign didn’t respond to a request for clarification on the point in time for publication, but maybe the candidate was giving an answer to a question that he wasn’t asked.

Brinson, for one, was unfazed by the possibility that Sanders had made a promise he won’t be able to fulfill.

“That’s something we can hold him accountable to,” he said.

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