Monday, July 11, 2016

What Sanders' black staffers actually said

Terrell Starr has published a new article aspiring to explain How Bernie Sanders lost black voters. As he explains elsewhere, what's "new" about this piece "is that [Sanders'] own former black staff is critiquing his campaign." Specifically, the article is built around quotes from two staffers who are willing to go on record: deputy director for African-American outreach Roy Tatum and National HBCU Outreach Director Danny Glover.

Read through Starr's article, however, and you'll notice how little of its critique actually comes from Team Sanders. Tatum insists that Sanders was "sincere to the core" in his outreach to black voters, and that campaign leaders simply "didn't have confidence" he could win them from Clinton - but this was always conventional wisdom during the primaries, and reads like pessimism rather than criticism.

The rest is just Tatum and Glover explaining how that assessment predictably dictated spending priorities. Tatum says "his department was underfunded" and that they had to go through "hoops to get resources"; Glover, meanwhile, says there "wasn't enough money" to continue their HBCU tour after February, and adds that "they didn't put as many people behind it as they should have."

That's it. That last "should have" is as close as Starr ever gets in this article to what's ostensibly new about it: black staffers going on-record to criticize the campaign. And among black campaign staffers he can't even find consensus on that modest critique; later in the article, national press secretary Symone Sanders insists that "as a person who was there on the ground, I can tell you that the campaign had a staunch commitment to reaching out to communities of color."

What they didn't say

It's easy to miss how trivial Starr's "scoop" actually is, because most of his article makes a much different argument than the Sanders staffers do - one that's far more ambitious and sensational. Sanders, Starr argues,
failed to win the hearts of black progressives. It didn't have to be that way. But his campaign never explained how black people fit into his vision of a radically changed America.
Note that none of this actually follows from the on-record information Starr gets from the campaign. Neither Tatum nor Glover make "it didn't have to be that way" claims, and neither draw the conclusions about Sanders' actual message that Starr does. All of that comes from the author's own editorializing, or from third parties with no connection the campaign, or from ambiguous paraphrases, or from staffers who speak "only on condition of anonymity". Every time Starr needs to make a claim that advances this argument, he relies on one of those four sources - never on on-record quotes from black campaign staffers.

Starr does not, for example, get a Sander staffer to say that the campaign's problems came from "white privilege, or simple cultural ignorance of black people" - that's all Starr. He doesn't get a staffer to complain that Sanders has a "colorblind approach to economics" - that's Clinton media surrogate Tara Dowdell. He doesn't quote Glover saying that "the campaign had no real interest in converting young black progressives into a powerful voting bloc"* - that's just a paraphrase. He doesn't quote a staffer saying that "the Sanders campaign had no real interest in engaging black voters" - that's just a paraphrase of an anonymous staffer.

Time and time again, when Starr has the opportunity to substantiate the article's critique with an on-record quote from a black Sander staffer - EG, what he seems to be promising - we get something else. Or he does get a quote, from a black Sanders staffer like Symone Sanders, but it directly contradicts his argument. Or he tries to talk to other Sanders staffers, like African-American outreach director Marcus Ferrell and campaign manager Jeff Weaver - and they refuse to play ball.

The same old smear

Perhaps there's a reason for that. Elsewhere in the piece, Starr drops an interesting point of trivia:
[An anonymous Sanders] staffer said that the campaign even tried to block me from covering a visit by Sanders to Atlanta for Fusion because I had reported critically on the senator in the past.
This is not particularly surprising, if true. For starters, Starr was one of the earliest figures to promote the ridiculous Bernie Bro smear. Even before that, however, he was pushing a related narrative: in an article that I noted at the time had little actually substantive reporting, Starr asked Why Aren't More Black Voters Feeling the Bern? There, he argued,
Sanders can gain the trust of more black voters...though many question his personal resolve to do so...The concern is that there is a belief that his campaign is operating on the assumption that its candidate doesn’t have to do the work of connecting emotionally with black voters and earning their trust.
If this analysis sounds familiar, it's because it's the exact same one that Starr tries to advance in this latest piece. And yet despite ten months of reporting, he's never once been able to substantiate it. Instead, all we get are claims about how "many question" this or how "there is a belief that", or all of the dubious sourcing mentioned above. I've challenged him before on these basic reporting problems (as did Matt Bruenig in his classic Nobody Is On Twitter piece), but he's never been able to address them.

So while others may be more inclined to give Starr the benefit of a doubt when he comes up with all of these convenient paraphrases and anonymous sources, I am not. Certainly the Sanders campaign made a strategic decision early on to focus on young voters, including young voters of color*, which necessarily came at the expense of everyone else. This was obvious long before Starr got staffers to say this on record.

Does it follow that the Sanders campaign had "no real interest in engaging black voters"? Nope. Starr has tried to argue this for nearly a year, but no black Sanders staffer is actually going on-record to say this, for obvious reasons.

* The theory that the Sanders campaign "had no real interest in converting young black progressives into a powerful voting bloc" is particularly odd since Sanders won 54.6% of young black voters, versus Clinton's 33.5%.