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Deconstructed Podcast Transcript, March 7, 2019

In 2015, Bernie Sanders was an insurgent candidate — an outsider and underdog with little money and very little name recognition. Four years later, he finds himself a frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and one of the most popular politicians in America. Many have attributed Sanders’ loss to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries to a poor showing among black voters, and Sanders has since worked hard to make inroads there, incorporating themes of racial discrimination and inequality into his campaign messaging. Yet questions persist about whether or not Bernie Sanders has a “race problem.” One of Sanders’ most prominent African-American surrogates in his last run for the White House was philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West, who continues to argue that black America should embrace “Brother Bernie.” On this week’s show, Mehdi Hasan and West discuss Sanders’ presidential chances and how he has progressed on race issues.

Cornel West: We have to have a candidate who can inspire at the deepest level the best values and instincts of the American people.

[Music interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. I’m excited today, and I hope you are too, because my guest is someone very special, who I’ve been wanting to interview for a while now, and not just because he appeared in the Matrix movies. He’s one of the most prominent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, who formally declared his candidacy for president of the United States this past weekend.

CW: He’s an anti-racist in his heart. He has a consistency over the years, decade after decade, going to jail in Chicago as a younger brother, and he would go to jail again. He and I would go to jail together again.

MH: That of course is the voice of the one and only Cornel West, academic, author, activist, socialist and perhaps the original Bernie brother. Boom, boom. So, on today’s show, a lively discussion with Dr. West on race, inequality, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and the 2020 Democratic presidential race.

Four years is a very long time in politics. Back in 2016, Bernie Sanders was an insurgent candidate, an outsider, an underdog with very little money and very little name recognition. Now, in the run-up to the 2020 election, he’s one of the frontrunners in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. He’s one of the most popular politicians in America, and to seal the deal, this time round he’s decided to get personal.

Bernie Sanders: I learned a great deal about immigration as a child because my father came from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket, without knowing one word of English. He came to the United States to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. And, it was a good thing that he came to this country because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.

MH: What’s often lost in the coverage of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy both last time and this time, is that if he wins, he would be the first ever Jewish president of the United States. In our era of “identity politics,” in our era of rising bigotry and anti-Semitism, surely that matters. Surely, that should be some defense against the charge that he’s just another “old white man.” Against the charge that he has a problem with race.

Ed Schultz: Does Bernie Sanders have a problem with black voters?

Amara Walker: Bernie Sanders struggled with the black vote in the 2016 election.

Charles Payne: And this is why Hillary beat Bernie. Black voters did not show up for Bernie Sanders.

Kasie Hunt: Those voters, those are still the core of the Democratic party and if Bernie’s going to have a problem, that’s where it’s going to come up.

MH: Some of his critics have even taken to just making things up when it comes to pushing this “Bernie is bad on race” narrative. Here’s former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Zerlina Maxwell on MSNBC commenting on his launch speech.

Zerlina Maxwell: I clocked it. He did not mention race or gender until 23 minutes into the speech.

MH: Just not true. Here’s Bernie Sanders right at the start of his speech, just a few minutes in.

BS: The underlying principles of our government will not be racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and religious bigotry.

MH: Look, there is no denying the fact that, in 2016, Bernie did take a beating from Hillary Clinton when it came to African-American voters in states like South Carolina where Hillary won a whopping 86 percent of the black vote while Bernie won just 14 percent — even though it’s also worth pointing out that a majority of young black people who voted in the Democratic primaries in 2016 voted for Bernie over Hillary.

Now, nearly four years later, the polls show the independent senator from Vermont has higher favorables with black and Latino voters, whether young or old, than any other Democratic candidate with the exception of Joe Biden — higher favorables, I might add, than both Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Bernie, contrary to the conventional wisdom, has worked hard to make inroads into black communities. He now talks much more about racial discrimination and racial inequality, as he did for example at a recent CNN town hall.

BS: Black kids are leaving college more deeply in debt than white kids. So we have an enormous amount of disparity in wealth, in education, in health that must be addressed. And I will work as hard as I can, number one, to have a cabinet that reflects what America is and, number two, to do everything that I can in every way to end all forms of racism in this country.

MH: In 2016, Bernie did have a pretty all-white leadership team. This time round? His national co-chairs are Congressman Ro Khanna, brown; former state senator Nina Turner, black; and San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Latina. His campaign manager is Faiz Shakir, formerly of the ACLU, who is the first Muslim to ever run a U.S. presidential campaign. Bernie’s also been willing, this time round, to remind voters of his own pretty impressive record on fighting for civil rights back in the sixties as a young student.

BS: I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination. I protested housing discrimination, was arrested for protesting school segregation, and one of the proudest days of my life was attending the March on Washington for jobs and freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

MH: Yeah, Bernie Sanders, who incidentally was also one of only a handful of elected white officials in America to endorse Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988, Bernie was arrested in 1963 at a protest over school segregation. To quote my colleague Briahna Joy Grey, Bernie, especially these days, has less of a “black problem” and more of a “pundit problem.”

[Music interlude.]

MH: My guest today has held professorships at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Paris. He is one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, who’s been portrayed on Saturday Night Live and appeared in two of the three Matrix movies. He calls himself a revolutionary Christian and a democratic socialist. And he’s an outspoken critic of racism, white nationalism and the U.S. empire. Back in 2016, he campaigned alongside Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, but will he be backing him again this time round? Let’s ask him.

Dr. Cornel West, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

CW: Thank you. I salute you. You’re a force for good, my brother.

MH: Appreciate it. Great to have you on the show finally. I’ve been waiting to have you on. Bernie Sanders formally announced his candidacy for president of the United States near his birthplace in Brooklyn this past weekend. You, Dr. West, famously endorsed brother Bernie over Hillary Clinton back in 2016. Will you be backing him again this time around?

CW: Well, as you know, I was blessed to do over a hundred events for my dear brother. And this is the first time I’ve had a chance to publicly endorse him again, but yes, indeed. I’ll be in his corner that we’re going to win this time. And it has to do with the Martin Luther King like criteria of assessing a candidate namely the issues of militarism, poverty, materialism, and racism, xenophobia in all of its forms that includes any kind of racism as you know against black people, brown people, yellow people, anybody, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Kashmirians, Tibetans and so forth. So that there’s no doubt that the my dear brother Bernie stands shoulders above any of the other candidates running in the Democratic primary when it comes to that Martin Luther King-like standards or criteria. ...
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