Over the weekend, populist 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders received a rude awakening to his unwillingness to discuss race in his campaign. At the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Sanders was heckled by Black Lives Matter protesters as they demanded the democratic candidates “say her name” referring to the recent controversial suicide of activist Sandra Bland while in police custody. Protesters accused Sanders of downplaying civil rights in an effort to boost his economic agenda instead. The Vermont senator, clearly annoyed, responded to the hecklers, “I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity…If you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”
Sanders finally addressed the race issue with a better public relations attitude:
"Black people are dying in this country because we have a criminal justice system which is out of control, a system in which over 50% of young African-American kids are unemployed," Sanders said. "It is estimated that a black baby born today has a one in four chance of ending up in the criminal justice system."
Yet his remarks weren’t enough for critics who see the socialist candidate as out of touch with black voters. In reaction to Sanders’ clear white privilege and consistent focus on economics rather than civil rights, Black Twitter lit up with the hashtag BernieSoBlack mocking the politician for failing to connect with the black community.
I actually heard it was Bernie's idea to march in Selma. MLK wanted to do the march in Hawaii. A destination march. #BernieSoBlack— Rod TBGWT (@rodimusprime) July 19, 2015
the studio audience on good times? that was all him. #BernieSoBlack— Desus Nice (@desusnice) July 19, 2015
Twitter user, Roderick Morrow, who launched the hashtag, spoke to the Daily Beast about Sanders’ prime focus on economics versus discrimination and how that ultimately falls short with African-American voters.
“Every time race is brought up, he pivots to the economy, which obviously a lot of racial disparity comes via economic means, but some of it is just flat out racism and discrimination,” Morrow said. Sanders’s view that “if we had more jobs in Ferguson, this wouldn’t have happened, I’m not sure that is valid. I mean, Mike Brown was on his way to college. It’s not just a jobs thing.”
The ultimate progressive candidate, Sanders has won with the young crowd, but has yet to capitalize on a key constituency of the Democratic Party: the African-American community.
He is senator of a state that is 95 percent white, his speeches hone in on income inequality and the one percent and shies away from discussing racial discrimination and police brutality and he has done poorly in the polls with non-white voters pulling in 9% compared to his opponent, Hillary Clinton’s, 61%.
"I haven't seen him engaging the black community. Nor am I hearing any chatter about him," said Rick Wade, Obama for America's African-American vote director. "Black voters don't know him."
Sanders’ standard theme on class as a one-size-fits-all solution for the country does not aim high enough for African-Americans who understand that fixing America's economic system does not equate to solving the whole puzzle.
Sanders fails to see class as just one piece of the pie, not the whole cake. Not tuning into this "politics of intersectionality" and conveniently weaving that into his agenda is where the quirky candidate falters. And frankly, he even seems rather scared of even dipping his toe into the subject of racial disparity as the Netroots Nation fiasco implies.
"His message is remarkably consistent in that it is devoid of any conversation around race. He is colorblind to an extent that it seems that race is something that is uncomfortable for him to talk about. He is like a lot of Vermonters," Reed said. "It's easy to rattle off statistics, but that's not engaging people of color."
Sanders' campaign adviser wants to solve the presidential candidate’s race problem by spotlighting his early activism, such as marching with Martin Luther King in 1963. But activists aren’t too pleased with focusing on the past, instead interested in looking towards the future.
“I'm happy to know that he was rallying in the 1960s. That tells me he was on the path when I was a child, but not too many people are thinking about the 60s" said Mary Brown-Guillory, president of the Vermont chapter of the NAACP. "What is he doing today about police brutality and the right to vote and equality?"
Diversity is vital for Sanders’ campaign now and the leftist has to show he’s not just about class, but other activist issues as well if he wants to appease the black vote.
Fair enough to say, Sanders’ stumble over the weekend and subsequent trolling has made him listen.
Sanders sat down with prospective voters at the Latino Victory Project after the Netroots Nation conference and asked for their guidance.
“I want some help on this. I'm being very honest," Sanders said. "I want some ideas, as somebody who was arrested 50 years ago fighting for Civil Rights trying to desegregate schools in Chicago, who spent his whole life fighting against racism, I want your ideas. What do you think we can do? What can we do?"
Sanders official Twitter account then tweeted to Black Lives Matter directly.
We want a nation where young black men and women can live without fear of being falsely arrested, beaten or killed. #BlackLivesMatter— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 19, 2015
While his tweets weren’t perfect, the gesture is a hopeful sign that Sanders will put more effort into reaching out to minorities.