Earlier this week, many of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination appeared at the She the People forum in Houston, which was billed as the first event of its kind to focus exclusively on women of color. Because women of color, and in particular black women, are an incredibly important voting bloc for Democrats, and one that candidates desperately need to listen to, everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders showed up to make their case.
For Bernie Sanders, it was an opportunity to show voters that he has taken some of the criticism directed at him since his first presidential run to heart. Sanders has continued to be criticized (some of it warranted, some of it overblown) for his weakness at speaking candidly and concretely about racial justice, a dynamic and narrative that first took shape in 2015. And it’s pretty clear his campaign knows he needs to get better at this, too. That’s why it was surprising—and telling—that when it came time for him to speak, his remarks showed that he hasn’t quite fully learned the lessons of his first presidential campaign.
Shortly after Sanders took the stage, Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and president of New American Leaders, asked him a pointed question about fighting white nationalism: “What do you believe is the federal government’s role to fight against the rise of white nationalism and white terrorist acts, and how do you plan to lead on that in your first year as president?”
Starting off by saying that the “demagoguery we are seeing from the Trump administration is not what this country is about” and that he would “do everything I can to help lead this country in a direction to end all forms of discrimination,” he then quickly pivoted to what has long been his core message: the need to address economic inequality. “The goal that we have got to establish is to bring our people together around an agenda that speaks to all people,” he said, an agenda that includes “guaranteeing health care to every man, woman, and child as a right, and not a privilege.” Sanders continued: “It means understanding that when we talk about minority communities, when we raise that federal minimum wage to a living wage of 15 bucks an hour, you’re going to do away with a lot of economic stress in this country. So those are some of the things I think we got to do.”
It was a curious and insufficient response to a very direct question, particularly at a time when the federal government is directing resources away from combating the threat of white nationalism and hate crimes are on the rise.
Sanders should be better at this by now. In 2015, shortly after one of his campaign speeches was disrupted by members of the Black Lives Matter movement and he was criticized for not taking the concerns of black Americans seriously, his campaign hurriedly released a racial justice platform that included everything from policing reforms to the restoration of voting rights. (This, as my colleague Katie McDonough wrote, “was the kind of responsive politics that can only really exist for a progressive candidate.”) The campaign brought on Symone Sanders, a young black progressive activist, as its national press secretary, who stressed to him that, in her words, “racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues.” After that, throughout the 2016 campaign, Sanders began to more consistently—though still unevenly—raise the need to target issues like mass incarceration and the racial wealth gap.
It’s worth examining his evolution on these issues. While Sanders is often derided for noting that he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington (as he was, understandably, on Wednesday at the She the People forum), it’s clear that his time in Chicago as a student activist was a formative one for him. What’s also true is that by the time he moved to Burlington, Vermont, and ran for mayor in 1981, he had largely changed his tune on issues like policing, and since his earliest days in public office, has had a laser-like focus on economic justice. And while he has often spoken out about issues that affect people of color, he typically frames them as issues that can and should be addressed by tackling economic ones. Take a speech he gave in Congress criticizing the 1994 crime bill, which he ultimately voted in favor of, championed by Bill Clinton and now-presidential candidate Joe Biden:
It is my firm belief that clearly there are people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them.
But it is also my view that through the neglect of our government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming today tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence. And, Mr. Speaker, all the jails in the world—and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country—and all of the executions… in the world will not make that situation right.
We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails. Mr. Speaker, let us create a society of hope and compassion, not one of hate and vengeance.
In 2014, Sanders reiterated those beliefs in a letter to the editor he wrote in response to the killing of teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. “If there is anything that we can learn from the Ferguson tragedy, it should be a recognition that we need to address the extraordinary crises facing black youths,” he wrote. “That means, among other things, a major jobs program, job training and vastly improved educational opportunities.”
Sanders, like so many white progressives, has tended to erase the explicit racial dynamics that shape the injustice he’s describing.
But he has started to embraced a different language today—if unevenly. “Our campaign is about fundamentally ending the disparity of wealth and power in this country,” he said when he launched his presidential campaign earlier this year. “But as we do that, we must speak out against the disparity within the disparity”—the “racial disparities of wealth and income,” the “terrible level of police violence against unarmed people in the minority community,” and an “infant mortality rate in black communities [that] is more than double the rate for white communities.” (Earlier this week, Sanders also took a position—a lonely one in the current Democratic field—that incarcerated people should retain their voting rights, a proposal that would disproportionately benefit black men and women, though he framed the issue as one of democracy, not racial justice.)
On Wednesday, Sanders again raised those points, saying in his closing remarks: “Amidst all the income and wealth disparity at a national level, we have racial disparities as well.” He added:
When we talk about justice, we are also talking about the massive levels of racial disparities that exist in this country. It’s not just that we need health care for all people. We need to address the fact that infant mortality in the African American community is two and a half times what it is in the white community. That white families have ten times the wealth of black families. That in the criminal justice system, African Americans get arrested far more frequently than whites.
Sanders’s updated racial justice platform is one of the most wide-ranging and ambitiously progressive of all of the candidates, encompassing everything from the need to end cash bail to abolishing redlining. But a platform will not be enough to convince voters—for all that Sanders has done to embrace the language of combatting racial inequality and frame his economic platform as part of a platform of racial justice, he often fails to connect the dots in a way that demonstrates an intuitive or deeply felt grasp of the problem. For Sanders’s supporters, it can be frustrating how this lends to easy caricature—as an old white man who is out of touch and doesn’t get it. But it is a real problem for Sanders, running as one of the frontrunners in a racially diverse field that has to a large extent embraced some of his more radical reforms like Medicare for All. He needs more than just the policies—he needs a level of analysis that better integrates racial and economic justice and an ability to communicate that clearly.
Aimee Allison, the president and founder of She the People, had explained to the New York Times that “the broad thing I was hoping to do was to get a sense for the competency and comfort that each candidate had talking about racial, gender and economic justice. “Are they even comfortable talking about it, and can they engender trust?” Allison said. Sanders’s campaign will have to answer that question for itself.