Cornel West on Bernie, Trump, and Racism

Taking a lesson from his 2016 loss to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is dedicating more time in his speeches to discussing systemic racism and discrimination. Will it be enough to win over black voters?

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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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.

MH: And that’s to do with the man himself. You’re endorsing him as a person, as your brother. In terms of policies, is there a particular policy that you think is crucial to his campaign that makes him stand out from the rest?

CW: No, the policies have to do — policies against militarism, policies against poverty, the critiques of Wall Street, the consistency of his call for Democratic accountability of corporate elites and financial elites and basically the greed that we see among so many of those elites. And the same is true about racism. I want to hit this issue head-on because there’s been some talk about reparations and it’s true. I’ve supported reparations. I’ve been struggling for reparations for over 40 years, but I don’t see an endorsement of reparations as the only precondition of fighting against white supremacy. There’s no doubt that his policies will benefit poor and working people and poor and working black people and brown people more than any other candidate. And so, yes, when it comes to just reparations as a whole and larger dialogue certainly, I’m for it, but I hope that a lot of black folk don’t get confused and sit back on this issue of reparations.

MH: You think you can get him to move on reparations? Because he was asked on ABC’s The View about whether he backed it and he said well, you know, we’ve got crises in our communities and there’s other better ways to address that than by “just writing out a check.” A lot of people criticized him for that as you say, do you think he can move on that like he’s moved on other issues? That people like you persuade him to a different position?

CW: No doubt about that, but the core is ensuring that there’s fundamental transformation in the racist system under which we live so that the lives of black and brown and yellow peoples are much better. And so, that’s the real issue. And so, it seems to me I don’t want reparations to be an issue that gets us away from him taking a stand on those issues so much better than any other of the other candidates.

MH: So you say he takes a takes a better position on those issues than other candidates.

CW: Oh, no doubt about it.

MH: A lot of those liberal critics, as you know, have said for a long time, especially in recent days that he’s not good on race issues. They say he has a blind spot when it comes to race both in terms of his rhetoric, in terms of the people he surrounded himself with in the past. What do you say to those liberal critics as someone who has been writing and thinking about race and racism your whole life and yet is a Bernie supporter?

CW: Well, one, it’s a matter of his heart. He’s an anti-racist in his heart. Two, he’s old-school. He’s like me. He doesn’t know the buzzwords. He doesn’t endorse reparations, one moment in the last 30 years, silent on it. He has the consistency over the years decade after decade and therefore it’s true in his language, in his rhetoric. There are times in which he doesn’t, he doesn’t say the right thing. He doesn’t use the same kind of buzzwords. But when it comes to his fight against racism, 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 in terms of fighting against police brutality. So in that sense, I would just tell my brothers and sisters, but especially my chocolate ones that they shouldn’t be blinded by certain kinds of words they’re looking for, that in the end, he is a long distance runner in the struggle against white supremacy.

MH: Why do you think, as you put it, your chocolate brothers and sisters, why do you think so many of them voted for Hillary over him in 2016? It did look in 2016 like he had “a problem with black voters.”

CW: Well one was you had the Hillary, the Clinton machine. The Clinton machine was in place before he even announced. Two, he had limited name recognition. So people didn’t realize. He’s from vanilla state, Vermont. Vermont is not known to being on the cutting edge of fighting against white supremacy. But once black people got a chance to discover who he was and we see that now in the polls.

MH: Yeah, now he has the highest approval ratings. One of the highest approval ratings, with Biden.

CW: Absolutely, because they’ve seen the deed. They’ve seen the action. They’ve seen the sincerity. They’ve seen the genuine conviction and commitment that he has against racism.

MH: We live in an age, Dr. West, in which many on the right and even some on the left referred to dismissively as identity politics. A lot of other people say no it’s a fight for equality, for diversity, for representation. Given that backdrop to this debate, do you think the Democrats can go into the next presidential election with either an all-white or an all-male ticket or is that off the table in 2020?

CW: Well in the end it’s got to do with the integrity of the person over the identity of the person. It’s got to do with the policies over identity. The criteria has to be a moral and political one.

MH: Yeah, and I agree with you that policy at the end of the day, ideology has to matter more than anything else. But at the same time you you know, you know as well as anyone else does that for minority communities, representation does matter. For women, representation does matter. If the Democrats were to have an all white, all male ticket, that would be hugely controversial given it’s the most diverse group of people ever running for presidency this time around. If it ended up with two white men surely, that would be a problem regardless of what policies they advocate.

CW: No, I think in terms of just realpolitik, but when Bernie Sanders wins the presidency, you can rest assured it’s not going to be with another vanilla brother. There’s no doubt about that.

MH: I suspect you’re right. I think you’re right there.

CW: I don’t worry about that brother Bernie.

MH: When you look at the current field of candidates who’ve declared and are yet to declare, a lot of them have moved to the left thanks to Bernie Sanders.

CW: That’s right.

MH: — Over the last few years. A lot of them are now saying “yes, inequality is a problem. Yes, medicare-for-all should be on the table, should be —” Do you worry that Bernie this time around won’t stand out in the way he stood out in 2016 because a lot of them are now singing from his hymn sheet..

CW: Yeah, but they’re newcomers, you know, and they’re latecomers. Bernie is the real thing. Bernie has been a thermostat. He has shaped the climate of opinion. Too many of them are thermometers. They reflect the climate of opinion. When you’re a thermostat, you are consistent. You are speaking your truth. You are bearing your witness and there’s no doubt that Bernie and he would say, of course the whole movement from Occupy, especially in the younger generation, multiracial to the core, that they have been thermostats. They have shaped the climate of opinion and I think many of us in our own small ways really we can celebrate the fact that people now have to talk about grotesque wealth inequality as a result of social movements, as a result of organizing and mobilizing. The Black Lives movement, that’s part of that too. The Black Lives movement has a critique of grotesque wealth inequality just as they have a critique of militarism. All of these things go hand in hand.

So that in that regard, I mean, I have respect for my dear sister Elizabeth Warren. I’ve got love for Cory. I’ve known brother Cory Booker for 20 some, 25 years or so. And he’s a liberal and I, you know, I’m more than a liberal but I can still love my brother. Elizabeth Warren is very progressive. I respect my dear sister. But Bernie Sanders is the best that we have of this group and he’s the real thing in terms of being consistent. I have my own critiques of Bernie too, you know that.

MH: Tell us one of them. What’s your top critique of Senator Sanders? What do you think you could do better on?

CW: Well, you know, in 2016, we put a lot of pressure on our brother in regard to foreign policy. He has been moving in a very progressive, morally ladened, wise direction. Again, it’s in his heart. And so, that would be one of the things that I’m concerned about, the militarism. You see the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has as much to do with militarism as it does with materialism, racism, and poverty. He and Ro Khanna, Ro Khanna, I have great respect for. I just met recently, deeply impressed with him. They’re talking about the War Powers Act of 1973 and the use of that thing in regard to the Saudi Arabia war against our precious brothers and sisters in Yemen, and the U.S. arms used. I mean, this is very important, very significant in terms of the fight against militarism, the fight against American imperialism.

MH: Yeah, and Bernie has moved and you want to see him move more as do we all.

CW: Absolutely, absolutely, but I mean, but I’m not running for president, you see. I’m his brother running in a different lane, you see. My calling is not to be a politician. It’s to be a truth teller free of political considerations.

MH: I think a lot of us prefer you in that lane. Well, I’ve got to ask the age — I’ve got to ask the age question. What do you say to critics who say Bernie Sanders is too old to be present? You can’t have a president who’s 79 at the start of his first term and 83 at the start of his second. What’s your response to them?

CW: Now, I say Bernie Sanders, he’s full of fire, full of energy, in good health, and there’s no doubt that he can put in four, if not eight, actually.

MH: Let me just move the conversation to a slightly broader subject. Just looking at the big picture, do you think people in the U.S. right now, even on the left, do you think they recognize the severity, the danger of the situation that we’re in right now? You were in Charlottesville you were there, you know that white nationalism is on the march. It has a friend, a protector, a supporter in the White House. Trump is no ordinary Republican president, is he?

CW: Oh, not at all. Trump, Trump is an authoritarian figure. He’s got deep neo-fascist sensibility. He’s got neo-fascists in his corner. I mean, we’re talking about whether there’s going to actually be anything like an American democracy in the next few years and decade. That’s really what’s at stake here. And I think this is a very important issue that we have to have a candidate who can inspire at the deepest level the best values and instincts of the American people. That’s why I’m convinced that brother Bernie Sanders is the only person who can beat Donald Trump, just like I was convinced he could have actually won in 2016. I just hope that the Democratic party could be.

MH: You think Trump could beat the other Democrats?

CW: I don’t know.

MH: I think a lot of the Democrats would beat Trump, personally. I think maybe 2016, Bernie could have beaten him the way that Clinton didn’t. I think Trump is more vulnerable than we think. Although, we shouldn’t be complacent. Of course, he could get a, of course, he could get a second term.

CW: I don’t know about that, brother. I just don’t think that a neoliberal centrist can generate any of the deep fire hat we need among the best of our, the best fire or the best sensibilities among our citizens. You’re going to have to have somebody who’s got a long history and longevity of integrity.

MH: You’ve served — one other interesting aspect of the current politics is the rise of the left, the rise of socialism — you’ve served, I believe, as chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.

CW: That’s right.

MH: When you hear Republicans now obsessing over socialism — the s-word is mentioned on Fox News with horror almost day in day out. Trump went out of his way to attack socialism in his State of the Union. What’s your reaction? Does it amuse you to see how worried people on the right and even the center seem to be these days by the rise of socialism, by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

CW: Well, I salute my dear sister AOC and all the others who are fundamentally committed to the lives of poor and working people of all colors here in this country. It’s a good thing to see a right-wing fellow citizens afraid of the word socialism because that word signifies human beings who are fundamentally concerned with the plight and predicament of ordinary people, of everyday people and want to ensure they have access, a right to healthcare, quality education, a right to raise their voices and shape their destinies without big money and big military standing in the way in terms of money spent on the budget. So in that sense, it’s really a sign that the awakening on the left is concrete younger generations in polls say they prefer socialism over capitalism. Not in the abstract —

MH: Those are revealing polling results, but the polling also shows that while most Americans like socialist policies, they still don’t like socialism the word, the name, the ideology. Most Americans still call themselves capitalists. It’s still a bit of an uphill struggle, right?

CW: No it is. It is. As you know, I mean, in the end, it’s not going to be a matter of a word. I mean, I’m a revolutionary Christian before I’m a Democratic Socialist, right. My understanding of what it is to be a Christian means I embrace my comrades. I embrace my fellow citizens and fellow human beings who are fighting against forms of injustice that lose sight of the dignity of poor and working people. And the same is true, you got a whole host of — Malcolm X was first and foremost a Muslim before he was a revolutionary socialist, but he was in the same orientation, even with stronger critique of empire, as we know. So, a lot of people get there in a lot of different ways.

MH: Just before we finish I do want to ask: you were a supporter of Barack Obama before he was elected in 2008, the last Democratic president. You campaigned for him, then you fell out with him, big time. You called him a fake progressive. You said he did ugly deeds. He left behind a sad legacy. Now, I’m no blind defender of the Obama presidency, far from it. I’ve criticized many aspects of it, as you have, including on this show. But just to be devil’s advocate, when you look at what Trump is doing now, trying to undo a lot of the few good things that Obama did — healthcare, financial regulation, protecting the Dreamers, the Iran deal, the Paris Climate Change Accords — it kind of paints Obama in a much more positive light now, doesn’t it? Given, looking at Trump’s trying to undo?

CW: I think most U.S. presidents look pretty good when you look at a gangster called Donald Trump, so that’s a pretty low bar.

MH: That’s true.

CW: But no, but my question for my dear brother Barack Obama was precisely the one that I raised for brother Bernie Sanders — and it was true even with my dear brother, Bill Bradley and others who I’ve supported — it’s not that I look for full agreement. I’m always going to be a critic. My calling is to be as socratic as I can be, to try to be as prophetic as I can be. So, I’m always going to be a critic after they move into power. But when it comes to those fundamental issues that I raised before when you’re friendly to Wall Street, if you’re going to bring in Tim Geithner, you’re going to get my critique. If you’re dropping drones on precious folk in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, you’re going to get my critique. If you have a national security and national surveillance state that’ keeping track, it’s violating rights and liberties, if you’re engaging in the killing of U.S. citizens without due process, you’re going to get my critique. That’s true for any president. I don’t care what color. I don’t care what gender. I don’t care what sexual orientation. So yes, Barack Obama looks very good. He was the brilliant black face of the American empire with all of its ugly militarism and racism and materialism and poverty. And Donald Trump is the know-nothing white face of the American empire with the same things and much worse. He’s got neo-fascist sensibilities that needs to be called into question.

MH: I’m glad we agree, much worse.

CW: Much, much worse.

MH: I’m just going to ask you one thing before we do finish, you’ve been attacked in the past for your strong support for the occupied Palestinian people and you’re pretty blunt in your criticisms of Israel and supporters of Israel. What do you make of the attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar who was on the show last week, who is young, female, black but is saying things about Israel that many of her critics say sounds anti-Semitic?

CW: Well, I think they’re wrong but I think, I’ll say to you what I said when I was a member of the democratic platform committee. I said my tradition was the tradition of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, is a two love affair. We got to fall in love with the Palestinian people, fall in love with the Jewish people, acknowledge that a Palestinian baby has exactly the same status of the Jewish baby and therefore, when you love folk, you hate the fact they’re being occupied, hate the fact they’re being dominated, hate the fact they’re being demonized. Now, if the Palestinians were engaged in an occupation of Jews, it would be exactly the same thing. When Jewish innocent people are killed you got a love affair with Jewish people. It’s wrong. That’s a crime against humanity. When Palestinian innocent people are killed, when Palestinian innocent people are being occupied, dominated, it’s wrong. It’s a crime against humanity. You have to have a moral consistency across the board.

MH: So how much of the attacks on Ilhan Omar do you think are about the fact that she is a black woman in a headscarf?

CW: Well, one, she’s a courageous sister and so she’s shattering taboos, you know, she’s like any other critic. She’s cutting against the grain. Five or ten years from now it will be normal. In 1982, Edward Said and I were marching in front of the New York Times just trying to get them to use the word occupation. Now, it’s mainstream. Now, it’s normal. So, that any time you look back to people who are willing to speak the truth, but what I would say to my dear sister is always keep the moral and spiritual consistency and content up front, that there’s no space whatsoever for any kind of anti-Jewish sentiment, no space for anti-Palestinian sentiment. This is a human thing. And it has to do with the fact that each and every one of us deserve a certain kind of dignity no matter who we are and it’s impossible under occupation. There can be no Jewish security with occupation. There can be no Palestinian justice with occupation.

MH: And last, last question Dr. West: you’ve talked about the need to be a prophetic voice. You’ve written about the history of black revolutionary figures being optimistic versus being pessimistic. When you look at the America of today of Donald Trump, are you optimistic or are you pessimistic about the future?

CW: I’m never optimistic or pessimistic about any empire. I’m a prisoner of hope. That’s something different. And hope is not something to talk about. It’s something to be. You got to be a hope. You got to fight. You got to struggle. You got to swing. It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing, brother. That’s Duke. That’s Ella Fitzgerald. And that swing has to do with intellectual, moral, spiritual weaponry. Tell the truth, bear witness, live and be willing to die. That’s my tradition.

MH: Dr. West, keep bearing witness. We need you. Thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

CW: I salute you, my dear brother. Stay strong and God bless your loved ones, man.

[Music interlude.]

MH: That was Dr. Cornel West speaking to me from Harvard. You heard him endorse Bernie Sanders there for the first time in this campaign, and point out how Bernie stands head and shoulders above the other candidates when it comes to a lifelong commitment to progressive causes — and I think he’s right about that. You also heard Dr. West say that Bernie is the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump in 2020. I think he’s wrong about that. I think Trump is a much weaker candidate than some on the left assume, and more importantly: I hope and pray he’s wrong about that because whoever the Democratic candidate is in 2020, whether it’s Bernie or anyone else, they have to beat Trump or we are genuinely screwed.

[Music interlude.]

That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music is composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review. It helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much! See you next week.

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