While discussing his own racial “blind spots” during Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, Sen. Bernie Sanders offered that white people “don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” His comment drew swift condemnation on social media, since it appeared that the Vermont lawmaker was implying that only black people live in impoverished communities, reinforcing inaccurate and painful stereotypes that have dogged African-Americans for years.
Sanders’ “ghetto” gaffe underlined a persistent problem that may have crippled his bid for the 2016 nomination. He has struggled to connect with black voters, and his choice of words has often undercut a populist economic message that might have resonated with people of color.
Even if Sanders had the best of intentions, it was not his best moment, as evidenced by one of his most prominent African-American surrogates–former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous–who told NBC News: “Sen. Sanders is from Burlington, he grew up in old Brooklyn, he knows white folks live in ghettos.”
On Monday, Sanders attempted to clarify his debate statement, telling a gaggle of reporters in Detroit: “What I meant to say, is when you talk about ghettos, traditionally what you’re talking about is African-American communities.”
One of Clinton’s attack lines on Sanders that has stung–that she is not a one-issue candidate–has also appeared to resonate with black voters. Even black voters on the far left were apoplectic that Sanders’ ambitious economic proposals stopped short when it came to reparations for slavery. And many black voters, who are hyper-sensitive to the degree of opposition President Obama has faced from conservatives, take issue with the notion that Sanders would somehow be more persuasive.
As the Democratic 2016 primary campaign has chugged along, Sanders has not only learned to embrace Black Lives Matter, but he’s being forced to confront the reality that black votes matter, too. In order to win the Democratic nomination he cannot simply dominate with white voters. The problem is that he may have already lost black voters a long time ago.