Bernie Sanders’ Revolution Needs Black Voters to Win. But Can He Talk to Them?

Ruby Cramer and Darren Sands, BuzzFeed, April 5, 2018

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Bernie Sanders was in Jackson, Mississippi, to talk about economic justice. It was here, in a state with the highest percentage of black residents in the country, where Sanders registered one of the worst performances of his presidential campaign, losing all 82 counties, by a total of 66 points.

Two years later, on Wednesday night, there were cheers of “Feel the Bern!” in the hall as Sanders and the city’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, discussed King’s legacy.

But midway through the event in downtown Jackson, an uncertain silence fell over the audience.

“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” Sanders started, responding to a question about the young voters who supported his campaign. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 and 2012.

“He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But behind that reality, over the last 10 years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”

It’s a criticism of President Obama’s tenure that Sanders and plenty of others have made before. But the time and place for the remark — 50 years to the day after King’s assassination, at an event to discuss that legacy—quickly shook loose old frustrations among Democrats who watched the senator struggle in 2016 to connect with black voters and speak to issues of racial justice.

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An Obama spokesperson declined to comment. But privately, former Obama lieutenants and other Democrats knocked the timing of Sanders’ criticism, considering his words on the Democratic Party a criticism of Obama’s own leadership. One texted that Sanders’ words were “dumb as hell.”

“Bernie’s comments were tone-deaf and will not help him with communities of color, especially black folks,” said Joshua DuBois, a strategist who led Obama’s faith-based initiative. “On that hallowed day, our focus should’ve been on the transformative legacy of Dr. King and how we can come together to continue King’s fight against systemic racism and injustice—not attacking the legacy of the first black president, who fought against many of the same things Dr. King fought.”

Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina Democrat who emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, told BuzzFeed News that {snip} [to] “dismiss with utter arrogance and lack of self-awareness the first African African president,” he said on Thursday, is “just the height and epitome of arrogance and lack of self-awareness.”

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Speaking by phone on Thursday, Weaver fired back at Sanders’ critics. Sellers, he said, was attempting to sow “racial division” by “deliberately misinterpreting” the senator’s remarks. (“My father was shot because of racial [division],” responded Sellers, whose father was shot during what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. “[Weaver] should find another line of attack, because I will not dignify that.”)

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In 2016, the 76-year-old Vermont senator struggled to attract wider black support with his message about wealth and income inequality, which he cast as “the great moral issue of our time,” “the great economic issue of our time,” and the “great political issue of our time”—often, critics said, at the expense of highlighting issues of race.

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If former campaign aides still hang on to one frustration from 2016, it’s the perception that Sanders can’t connect with the black community. His pollster, Ben Tulchin, can still recite exit polling figures showing his gains with black millennials. His former press secretary, Symone Sanders, published a Washington Post op-ed headlined “It’s Time to End the Myth That Black Voters Don’t Like Bernie Sanders.” And his top aides are quick to point to a series of Harvard-Harris polls showing the senator as the most popular politician among black voters.

Sanders, in the months since 2016, has cultivated a closer relationship with leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. He’s been a more frequent presence at events like Wednesday’s town hall in Jackson. And advisers insist that the Democratic primary, and the activists he met along the way in 2015 and 2016, did set off a real change in the senator’s thinking on racial justice.

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“He was unconsciously unskillful on issues of race,” said the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Curtiss Reed Jr., who has observed Sanders for years in his home state. “His framework is income inequality and economic justice. He sees that as the all-inclusive tent.”

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After protesters interrupted him with chants of “say her name”—referring to Sandra Bland, a black woman who’d recently died inside a Texas prison after a traffic stop—Sanders stopped talking and paced the stage. “Listen, black lives of course matter. And I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights,” Sanders finally said. From the crowd, someone shouted back, “What are you doing about it now?” The protracted exchange left campaign aides “demoralized” and “devastated,” an operative present recalled. Sanders, the person said, was “pissed.”

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The experience was a new one for Sanders. On a trip to Seattle in August 2015, Black Lives Matter activists interrupted two events in one day. The next day, in a meeting with Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland group loosely affiliated with Black Lives Matter, Sanders repeatedly answered questions by referring the activists to his campaign website. {snip}

Around that time, the candidate brought on Symone Sanders to serve as his national press secretary and one of the first black faces of his campaign. During her first week on the job, she said, she told Sanders that he had to treat racial inequality and economic inequality as “parallel issues”—a suggestion she said he ran with. {snip}

By the time his campaign aides scrambled to release a detailed criminal justice platform on Aug. 9, Sanders was still struggling. In a September meeting with Campaign Zero, a movement formed out of the Ferguson protests, activists asked Sanders why, in his opinion, there were a disproportionate amount of people of color in jail for nonviolent drug offenses. Sanders, seated across the table, a yellow legal pad at hand, responded with a question of his own, according to two people present: “Aren’t most of the people who sell the drugs African American?” The candidate, whose aides froze in the moment, was quickly rebuffed: The answer, the activists told him, was no. Even confronted with figures and data to the contrary, Sanders appeared to have still struggled to grasp that he had made an error, the two people present said.

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Ahead of a possible 2020 campaign, Sanders’ inner circle remains largely unchanged: His closest advisers include his former campaign manager, Weaver; his media consultant, Tad Devine; and his wife, Jane Sanders. Some note that his operation now includes Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president now running for governor of Maryland, as well as Nina Turner, a prominent Sanders surrogate who is now running his political organization, Our Revolution.

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On Wednesday night, seated beside Lumumba, the 35-year-old mayor who came into office last year, Sanders talked about King’s focus later in life on connecting the fight for integration and civil rights with issues of income inequality. “All of us know where he was when he was assassinated 50 years ago today,” the senator said. “He was in Memphis to stand with low-income sanitation workers who were being exploited ruthlessly, whose wages were abysmally low, and who were trying to create a union. That’s where he was. Because as the mayor just indicated, what he believed — and where he was a real threat to the establishment—is that of course we need civil rights in this country, but we also need economic justice.”

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