On Monday, Michael Eric Dyson joined a number of Black leaders endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden for president. The minister and Georgetown University professor argued that the former Delaware senator “has been a fierce advocate of the downtrodden” and therefore is best fit for the Oval Office.
But Dyson’s characterization contradicts the facts. Biden has been more of an adversary than an advocate for the most vulnerable. Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has spent his entire life uplifting the downtrodden. For African American Christians, whose faith kindled in the shadow of racial oppression, endorsing Sen. Sanders is our only chance to practice our commitment to the gospel of liberation.
Both candidates have deep roots in their respective faith traditions. Biden, a Catholic, quite literally wears his faith on his sleeve. He sports the rosary beads his son, Beau, wore when he died from brain cancer. Sanders is the son of working-class Jewish immigrants who fled the Holocaust. “At a very early age I learned that it is absolutely imperative that all of us do everything we can to stop racism and white nationalism,” he said at a CNN presidential town hall.
Biden’s appeal among Black voters is a combination of familiarity and electability. His tenure under President Barack Obama and moderate political agenda, some argue, gives him the best chance to take back the White House for Democrats. But polls paint a less clear picture and Hillary Clinton, the last moderate from Obama’s administration, lost to Trump.
While Biden’s chances of defeating Trump may be debatable, his track record certainly speaks for itself.
In the 1970s, Biden called state-mandated school integration “the most racist concept you can come up with.” He worked with racist senators to oppose forced busing. Sen. Kamala Harris gained popularity after calling him out on it at a debate last year, even though she has now joined the growing list of high-profile Democrats endorsing him.
In 1994, the Delaware senator authored the infamous Violent Crime and Control and Law Enforcement Act which fueled the fire of mass incarceration and devastated Black communities. The bill expanded the death penalty; established harsher sentencing policies and longer prison terms; eliminated funding for prison education programs; and gave $9.7 billion in federal funding for prison construction.
Despite Biden’s roots in the Catholic Church, his political career has bore little fruit in Black communities. Instead, his policies have left many of us hungry for social change.
Sanders is a Jewish democratic socialist who stands in the tradition of Black leaders who embraced socialism, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Lorraine Hansberry, and Cornel West. The Vermont senator understands what America’s most famous preacher and democratic socialist, Dr. King, taught:
Racial justice can never be achieved without economic justice.
While Biden might show up and smile in Black churches, Sanders’s life in public service most closely aligns with the prophetic voice of the Black Church and political vision of the Black freedom struggle.
In August 1963, he was arrested for protesting school segregation on the South Side of Chicago. As a college student, he was a leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, a major civil rights organization that played a central role in the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. In 1988, he endorsed Jesse Jackson for president over Joe Biden. Biden had to drop out of that race because the press discovered that he plagiarized his speeches.
Further, Sanders’s campaign is the culmination of a forty year career fighting for “the least of these.” He wrote the Medicare for All bill, which will provide health care coverage for every American and eliminate the $81 billion in medical debt. He wants to expand Social Security; cut the prison population in half; create affordable housing; make public colleges and all HBCUs tuition-free; provide free child-care and Pre-K education; and enact universal employment, including health-care jobs to support seniors and people with disabilities.
Healthcare, wealth inequality, climate change, and criminal justice reform all disproportionately impact Black communities. Despite similar crime rates, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Sixty-eight percent of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal plant. In my home state of New Jersey, the median net worth of a white family is $271,504 but only $5,900 for a Black family. And in many Black communities across the country, it is easier for young people to find a gun than a job.
Things are falling apart. Will our fragile experiment in democracy hold back the forces of domination and despair? We need a candidate that reflects the core values of our faith. The best of the Black Church has always been a love for justice. We follow in the footsteps of a sunbaked Palestinian Jew who the Roman empire hanged from a tree for acting in solidarity with the oppressed. While some African American clergy unconscionably support Trump, we must take a different stance. The question is: will we support the candidate who is hungry to sit at the table of empire and greed or the one who wants to overturn it? Will we vote based on our faith in God or our fear of the ungodly?
We have come this far by faith. By faith, we broke free from the chains of slavery. By faith, we survived the strange fruit of lynching. By faith, we marched for jobs on Washington and boycotted segregated buses in Montgomery. Faith was our north star in the dark night of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow. And it is by faith that we will transform this country and remake the world in the image of an all-loving God.
That is why I am excited about the multi-racial, multi-generational movement coalescing around Sen. Sanders. His campaign is about much more than defeating Trump. It is about practicing the values we hold most dear: healing the sick, housing the poor, and loving our neighbor. Beyond his policy agenda, it is Sanders’ moral clarity that separates him from Biden. And that matters because who and what we vote for is not simply a matter of politics.
It is a decision informed by what we learn in Sunday School. It is rooted in the sacred truth that we might not be alive to see all of the fruits of our labor, but we must still plant good seeds in healthy soil for the generations to come.
Sanders is certainly not a savior, but he is the clear choice to not only beat Trump, but to transform this country. And more than any one politician, we need a movement of people to confront the sins that so easily beset our society. A society now confronted with a question of faith that we cannot afford, in this moment, to answer with a crisis of vision.
Nyle Fort is a minister, activist, and Ph.D. candidate in religion and African American studies at Princeton University.