A Handy Timeline of Bernie Sanders' Missteps on Race

Can Bernie Sanders make good with Black Lives Matter before it's too late?
Publish date:
August 19, 2015

Bernie Sanders, the populist candidate who seemed like he didn't have a chance at winning the Democratic nomination, is suddenly emerging as a media juggernaut. But not because of the fact that he's forcing other candidates to take on issues — rather, it's because of his own lack of engagement. Sanders has a serious race problem, and he's digging the hole deeper every day rather than addressing it.

His most recent statement that he doesn't owe an apology to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been pushing him to address the concerns of people of color in America, shows that he doesn't understand the way the political wind blows — or the fact that he needs to earn black votes if he wants a chance at winning the primaries, let alone the election. The decision to scapegoat his own African-American Outreach Director in the process was a particularly poor move.

But to understand the problems with Sanders and race, it's necessary to step back and examine the bigger picture.

Black Lives Matter emerged in 2012 in a response to the sorrow, rage, and injustice that followed in the wage of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin, the black teen whom he shot claiming a "stand your ground" defense. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors started with a hashtag, but they created a revolution, one that gained prominence in 2014 with the police shooting death of Michael Brown and fatal choking of Eric Garner during an arrest, followed by failures to indict in both cases.

The organization fights state violence across the black community, including not just the deaths of black men, women, and children that occur every 28 hours at the hands of police and vigilantes, but also a disproportionate incarceration rate, high poverty, the abuse of black trans women at the hand of the state, and more. It demands a reinvestment of government resources in rebuilding and supporting communities, rather than supplying military materiel to police departments and contributing to other acts of state violence. The movement also wants to see police officers held accountable for injuries and deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

Race is an issue in the United States. It always has been an issue. Black Lives Matter is demanding that it be kept in the public eye, and at the moment, it's forcing a discussion as the nation faces down a presidential election. All of the candidates will need to tackle race in order to address the electorate and win the vote, and those who do not will be lagging behind those who do. Black Lives Matter points out that race is a multifaceted problem in America, one not just of racial injustice but also of the intersection between race and class, race and disability, race and gender. Democrats in particular must not only acknowledge that the movement exists but actively engage with it, not just because it's intrinsically important but because they cannot win the election without the votes of people of color, and because the Democrats as well as progressives have a very bad history on racial issues, as they tend to focus on white progressivism to the exclusion of other subjects.

One Democratic candidate, however, has not only refused to engage with Black Lives Matter, but in fact actively spurned the movement. Bernie Sanders has created a serious problem for himself, as have the grassroots supporters who attack critics of the campaign — for those concerned about Sanders' record on race, being continually berated by uncritical supporters of the Sanders campaign is extremely offputting. The campaign may have already reached the tipping point beyond which it cannot recover from in terms of alienating black voters, other people of color, and those standing in solidarity with them.

With this in mind, examining a timeline of Sander's most notable failures reveals a very disturbing pattern.

Wolf Blitzer Interview, May

After Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, Sanders was invited to speak with Wolf Blitzer, who asked about the civil unrest in Maryland.

In the neighborhood where this gentleman lives, as I understand it, the unemployment rate is over 50 percent, over 50 percent. What we have got to do as a nation is understand that we have got to create millions of jobs, to put people back to work, to make sure that kids are in schools and not in jails.

Notably absent: Any acknowledgement of Gray's race, let alone the escalating number of deaths in police custody, or the particularly brutal nature of Gray's death. It was a clear example of an almost willful cluelessness on the subject of race in America.

Netroots, July

Netroots Nation is a key progressive conference and one that provides an excellent opportunity for candidates to connect with voters in a grassroots way. Sanders connected with voters, all right, and it wasn't a positive experience. When Black Lives Matter activists stood up during a town hall meeting to call out the names of black women who died in the custody of law enforcement, the crowd was largely hostile. Town hall meetings are ostensibly held specifically so that members of the public can provide input and ask questions, but in this case, the speakers weren't interested in engaging with these members of their audience.

Sanders chose to talk over the activists, behaving extremely defensively, dismissing their concerns, and sticking to what's made him so popular with many progressive white voters: His hyperfocus on class to the exclusion of all other issues, including the highly intersectional nature of class. The United States does have a serious class problem, but it's impossible to examine that problem in a vacuum, as he's trying to do.

Seattle, August

Sanders didn't learn his lesson at Netroots. It provided an ideal opportunity to respond to activists at the meeting, and he blew it. It provided an ideal opportunity to meet with activists after the meeting, at Netroots, and he blew it. It provided an opportunity to reach out to activists and discuss their concerns, integrating them into his platform, and he, again, blew it.

Which is why Black Lives Matter again took the stage, this time at a campaign event in Seattle. After being silenced and ignored by Sanders, Marissa Johnson and other activists gave him a taste of his own medicine, successfully capturing the stage and the attention of the audience — and hours later, Sanders played to an audience of 15,000 in a packed arena. Those supporters were not only disinterested in the events that had occurred earlier in the day, but again actively hostile.

His response to the protest displayed a singular lack of understanding about the issues at hand:

I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare. I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.

The question from protesters wasn't whether a candidate would fight harder than Sanders, but whether Sanders could demonstrate his commitment to racial justice by discussing racial issues and providing clear information in his platform about how he planned to address them.

Portland, August

After hiring Symone Sanders (no relation) as his press secretary — in a move that could be highly tokenizing and cynical or a genuine recognition of Sanders' skills, given that she's a young black woman — Sanders shrewdly sent her out on the stage for his next countermove. Opening an event in Portland, she warned audience members that the event could experience a "disruption," and suggested that attendees chant "We Stand Together," leading them in a practice run before bringing the candidate on stage.

If the decision to present a young black woman as the face of the chant was intended to fend off criticism, it didn't work. Critics of the campaign were furious that Sanders had progressed from attempting to silence protesters on his own to actively goading his supporters to do it — even though many of them were already doing so at rallies as well as in online discussions. The presence of what amounted to an official shoutdown chant — one that moreover was a reminder of "wait your turn" and "why can't we just all get along" politics — was yet another example of the problems with the Sanders campaign.

This is where things begin to get interesting

Faced with repeated calls for an honest discussion on race issues, Sanders actually released a platform that specifically addressed the subject, and though his most ardent supporters might like to think otherwise, it was a transparent response to Black Lives Matter activists. In other words, the people who had been verbally abused by those accusing of undermining their best choice of candidate actually forced him to the table and compelled him to tackle race. That, in turn, will have a ripple effect for Hillary Clinton, who can't stand by while Sanders advances a platform and thus will be forced to develop one of her own.

Of note is the fact that much of the language in his platform is nearly directly lifted from commentary by the Black Lives Matter movement.

While the platform clearly articulates action items and what Sanders believes should be done to address physical, economic, legal, and political violence, he doesn't articulate how the action items are to be accomplished. Instead, in vague terms of "we should," he lays out the obvious — commentary like addressing the pay gap and demilitarizing American police. While these statements are certainly laudable, they don't provide the concrete action that activists are actually asking for.

Which is when things start to get even more interesting

Marcus Ferrell, identifying himself as a senior staffer on the campaign, allegedly reached out to representatives of Black Lives Matter to propose a meeting in Washington with Sanders. "I apologize it took our campaign so long to officially reach out," he wrote. It might seem like too little, too late to advocates frustrated with stonewalling from the campaign, but the situation got even more complicated when Sanders hit Meet the Press.

"Well, that was sent out by a staffer, not by me," Sanders responded when asked about the email.

In a followup, Chuck Todd asked: "But you said a staffer put it out but you felt an apology was necessary?"

Sanders responded: "No. I don’t. I think we’re going to be working with all groups. This was sent out without my knowledge."

Naturally, staffers send out emails on behalf of candidates all the time, with and without explicit direction to do so — politicians cannot write and review every single communication sent out from their offices. However, a communication of this nature, one so critical to an issue the campaign has been repeatedly dinged on, should have been signed off on by the candidate himself — so if he did, he's lying, and if he didn't, he just threw his outreach coordinator under the bus in a move that is unlikely to improve his standing with the movement that's asking him to respond to their concerns.

His suggestion that the campaign doesn't need to apologize for being sluggish on their response to Black Lives Matter also occurred within the context of a somewhat disorganized Meet the Press interview in which he danced around the issues under discussion rather than tackling them head on, further evidence of the fact that Sanders doesn't fully understand racial issues in the United States, viewing them primarily as something that requires token lip service rather than genuine attention.

Peak interesting

On Monday, Black Lives Matter activists once again took to the Internet to ask why Sanders isn't responding to their calls for engagement on the issues, and this time, the Sanders campaign apparently realized that it can't hide any longer.

DeRay McKesson is a civil rights activist and member of the planning team at We the Protesters, an organization fighting for racial justice in the United States. The emerging civil rights leader is becoming a force to be reckoned with, one reason the Sanders campaign may have felt obliged to respond — especially in light of its recent public relations disasters — but gender may also be a factor, as it's notable that women activists have been leading the charge but it took a man to get the campaign to engage. It could also be possible that the campaign has finally realized it has its back against the wall and cannot afford to keep fobbing off black voters.

A June poll had 95 percent of nonwhite voters supporting Clinton over Sanders. Clinton has sharply been taking advantage of this, attempting to lock in that vote with full awareness of the fact that no candidate can win an election without the support of voters of color. Sanders appears to be on a quest to recover from his fumblings on race, but he's definitely not out of the woods, and he has considerable ground to cover if he wants to catch up and be taken seriously as a candidate.

Given the rise of Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements, Sanders could find himself with an incredibly powerful group of grassroots organizers among his supporters — if he's willing to work with them instead of against them, to listen to them instead of ignoring them, and to genuinely develop plans for addressing their concerns. Should the campaign move forward with a meeting in the near future, perhaps that will change.

Meanwhile, the argument that people should vote for a candidate on the "lesser of two evils" basis doesn't hold weight. If Bernie wants the vote, he needs to demonstrate that he deserves the vote, and so far, he hasn't.

Photo credits: Paul Silva, AFGE (CC)