ATLANTA—Lindsey Burgess is the kind of voter Sen. Bernie Sanders desperately needs more of: young, black, college-educated, progressive.
When she’s not in class, Burgess, a 21-year-old senior majoring in history at Spelman College, is pitching Sanders to as many black people as she can. She’s aware of the challenge: A lot of young African-Americans don’t “feel the Bern.” Burgess feels he has a shot at reaching them, but only if he’s willing to put forth the effort.
“I do think there is a chance,” she says. “But I do think the campaign needs to do a better job of tapping into those communities. That would be the only way he could win.”
Burgess proudly describes herself as a black progressive, a distinction she emphasizes throughout our conversation one recent Wednesday afternoon at Sanders’ campaign office in downtown Atlanta. Particularly on the issues of health care and income inequality, she defines being a black progressive as “just working within my community and making sure people are informed. That’s where I try to make sure my work is, and then I move out.”
It’s rare to find a young black person like Burgess in this election cycle. Not only is she a Bernie supporter, but her mother and grandmother are casting their ballots for the senator, too; older black people are staunchly in Hillary Clinton’s camp, according to most polls. In Saturday’s South Carolina primary, 62% of black voters under 30 went for Clinton, exit polls showed. She won 86% of the overall black vote.
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Though Burgess supports Sanders enthusiastically, she sees a racial chasm in the progressive movement. On economic equality and free education, she and her white fellow progressives, Sanders’ most loyal supporters, are aligned. However, when it comes to social justice issues like police brutality, she feels some of those same white progressives do not realize their privilege.
“Instead of challenging the law, I see them more so defending it, so I think that is where the road divides for us,” Burgess says. “Sometimes, they can be protectors of the law instead of questioning the law.”
In black communities, she says, “These same white progressives aren’t really trying to work to improve the economic conditions. Now, they are like, ‘This is Bernie Sanders. You should for him him at the presidential level.’ But you have a lot of local politicians at the local and state level who are white and represent black people but aren’t bringing change to those communities.”
Martese Johnson, whom I ran into at Sanders’ campaign office the day before, shares Burgess’ thinking. He is the black University of Virginia student who was captured on video being violently arrested, blood streaming down his face, on campus last March.
“Black Lives Matter is more than just about police violence,” Johnson, 21, who started supporting Sanders back in May, told me. “I think he has addressed most of the issues that are prevalent in the black community, whether it’s housing disparities, wealth inequality, healthcare. All of these things affect us. He’s been the only candidate that’s been proactive in addressing these issues straightforwardly and has said black people are hurting in this way.”
One knock against Sanders is that he is too idealistic and does a poor job of explaining how his democratic socialism will translate into real legislation that can actually pass Congress. One would think younger black people would be more amenable to Sanders’ outlook: Young people are supposed to be idealistic. The “political revolution” is something that young black people should be drawn to in large numbers. But that simply doesn’t seem to be the case so far.
Burgess says that Sanders could do a better job of explaining what such a revolution would mean for black people, but that it’s not entirely his fault that many don’t grasp it, either.
“I think a lot of people honestly lack imagination when it comes to how we think about politics and the actual reform that we can do,” she tells me. “For people to say he is too idyllic. To say we can never have something like that in this country is a mindset problem.”
Another challenge for Sanders is that he doesn’t do a very good job of adjusting his message to the different black audiences he speaks to. Sometimes, he looks like he doesn’t understand the cultural makeup of the crowd at all. Two weeks ago, during a black-centered community forum in Minneapolis, Felicia Perry, an American-American businesswoman and artist, challenged Sanders to say “black” instead of “people of color” when addressing questions from the audience. Sanders appeared to be agitated by her comment and said not only black people deal with income inequality, a comment that could be read as, “#AllLivesMatter.” During his response, he reminded the audience that he had used the word “black” 50 times, as if he had been keeping count in his head in case someone asked. Perry, 36, told me later that she was so turned off by his tone that “I literally bit my tongue.” She may still consider voting for him, but that his response made the possibility very slim.
“He didn’t come to talk about our specific issues as black people,” Perry said. She told me she would write in a candidate before voting for Clinton.
Burgess has been supporting the Sanders' presidential run since volunteering at a September fundraiser in Atlanta. Eager to get a closer look at the senator, she managed to sneak her way into a private meeting he held with a smaller group of people and asked him how he’d support historically black colleges and universities if he won the White House. She was impressed with his answer.
“He said he would like to implement policies to ensure they’re around the next 40 years,” Burgess remembers him saying.
At the time, few of her Spelman classmates knew who Sanders was. But, as his campaign picked up steam, they realized why she was going so hard for him early on. When I ask her how she plans on converting them and other black people, Burgess says it’s all about one-on-one PR.
“It’s spreading his message within my community and letting people know who he is, providing facts and articles and speeches,” she says. “Just letting people know he’s had a very consistent track record (on race).”
A videographer and I leave the office and drive over to the city’s Fourth Ward to observe how she engages black voters on her candidate. She is dressed in a white T-shirt that reads, “Bernie For President,” jeans and a pair of open-heel black slippers. “This is where the campaign really needs to be. In the community,” Burgess tells me, saying she prefers “being with the people” instead of volunteering in the office.
Many of the homes Burgess is attempting to visit are apartments that are inaccessible because we can’t get past the security gates. Even when she knocks on doors, no one answers. At one residence, we meet the next door neighbor of a person on the canvassing list. Burgess asks whether she’s willing to consider voting for Bernie. “Sorry,” she says. Hillary has her vote. The woman tells us the person we were looking for may be home, but there was a chance he wouldn’t answer; he didn’t. A loud, barking dog did respond to Burgess’ knock.
After an hour or so, we don’t speak to a single person. That was to be expected. It was the middle of the afternoon, when most people are at work. We return to the office.
Burgess knows it’s going to be tough for Sanders to win significant black support, but she is hopeful her advocacy will help. Either way, she’s casting her ballot for him on Tuesday. Whether Sanders wins the Democratic nomination or not, she believes his candidacy has been a win for progressives who will have a playbook on how to run an anti-establishment campaign.
“You have this new wave of politicians who are using new language,” Burgess says. “You have Democrats, but now you have democratic socialists. So this presidential election is opening up what we think a progressive is.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.