Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With the Democratic primary headed to South Carolina and Nevada Feb. 20, now’s the time when you can put some money on the market. Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, offered a juicy appetizer. Yet both were as white and middle-class as a row of picket fences in a Hallmark Channel movie.

Bernie Sanders’ once mythical, long shot campaign has caught fire, and the growling senator from Vermont now has eyes on the coveted black vote.

But before he wins it, Sanders first has to fix his stump speech.

It’s that annoying, tad-offensive shoutout to black and brown folks only after he gets to the part about incarceration and criminal-justice reform. (Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul had that problem, too.) Not that Sanders is wrong about how disproportionately impacted we are by the prison-industrial complex—in fact, he’s pretty spot-on.

Advertisement

The problem is his presentation during those crucial primary-winning moments when we know everyone is watching. There’s an entire half-speech in which he’ll discuss inequality, the 1 percenters and mounting student loan debt. But it’s not until he mentions jails that we finally get his nod of electoral endearment.

So, here’s a little text lifted from Sanders’ roaring speech before a stoked (mostly white) crowd after his handy dispatch of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire: “And when we talk about transforming America, it means ending the disgrace of this country having more people in jail than any other country in the world, disproportionately African American and Latino. Not only are we going to fight to end institutional racism, and a broken criminal-justice system, we are going to provide jobs and education for our young people, not jails and incarceration.”

And he did it a week prior, seemingly unfazed by the lead Clinton may have scraped in Iowa; same speech: “We will end the disgrace of having more people in jail than any other country. Disproportionately African American and Latino. What we are going to do is provide jobs and education for our kids not more jails and incarceration.”

Advertisement

In the ever evolving, important world of speechwriting and campaign messaging, these are “cues” or “triggers,” strategically placed junctures within a text that lead you to a main point. The two speeches above are cited because they are Sanders’ national connection moments, big stage events when he must create stirring visuals to move the audience. Rhetorical acupuncture. In these glaring samples, Sanders doesn’t work up a reference to people of color until he’s (perhaps unintentionally) created that visual in which the vast majority of black and brown folks are perpetually imprisoned.

Maybe that’s what he’s used to: Vermont’s population is just barely 1 percent black, but its prison population is nearly 11 percent black.

Still, nationally, the vast majority of black folks are not holed up in C block. It’s a dangerous and often messy turn in racial language that Sanders, being the suddenly anointed “civil rights” and Black Lives Matter stamp-of-approval candidate that he is, should know. Despite the purse-clutching stereotype that all of us are having chronic brushes with the law, some perceptions can be much more harmful than helpful.

It is true that black people, especially, are routinely targeted by law enforcement and do end up as a horrifically overwhelming share of incarcerated individuals. The record is straight and stark on that: Sixty percent of those imprisoned are people of color; the Bureau of Justice Statistics predicts 1 in 3 black men are on a prison trajectory; and black women are three times more likely to face jail than their white counterparts. This terrifying chart from Washington Post’s Wonkblog (citing a University of Chicago study) shows a whale-sized gap between incarceration gaps for black men and white men. There’s no sugarcoating it.

But despite routine odds and racism’s hurdles, black success is often the rule rather than the exception. It’s not confined to “firsts” or those rare moments when Hollywood is willing to release a black-history biopic. American Council on Education analyst Bryan Cook slaps back at the prison-life notion, quickly correcting the record to show the reverse and an 86 percent increase in black male college attendance since 2000. Howard University’s Ivory Toldson shut it all down with his discourse-shaking 2013 piece in The Root. Before Cook and Toldson, there was documentary filmmaker Janks Morton on the subject in his 2012 flick, Hoodwinked: We Can No Longer Doubt Our Greatness.

So let’s do the math rather than feed the image of an entire population stuck in cell blocks. According to the 2014 census, there are a total of nearly 46 million black people in the United States. Nearly 22 million are black men, and 24 million are black women. Overall, 6 percent of working-age black men ages 18-64 are in state, local or federal jail, which translates into 1.3 million out of the 22 million. A total of 368,000 black women are in prison, making up 23 percent (still too many) of the 1.6 million women incarcerated.

Advertisement

That’s about 1.7 million black people out of 46 million—or just under 4 percent of the black population that’s seen the inside of a jail.

In the countdown to the Palmetto State, a place where both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will test their mettle with black voters, both candidates will need to speak to a wide range of issues in a state where black Democratic primary voters rule. And, at some point, both—particularly Sanders—will need not only to embrace other domestic and (yes) foreign policy elements of an expansive black agenda, but also to make specific commitments should either become president.  

Perhaps a pivot is happening as we speak. In his meeting with Sanders on Wednesday, National Action Network’s Al Sharpton noted that a “window is opening” for black community advocates, elected officials and thinkers to force real policy proposals and promises out of both candidates. Maybe Sanders changes up on the stump, since he’ll expect far more folks of color as he heads South.

Advertisement

Black voters are a lot more sophisticated and diverse in their thinking than just worries over criminal-justice issues. Just like the white voters packing Sanders’ Iowa and New Hampshire rallies, black people are disproportionately burdened by high student loan debt, outrageous college tuition and 1 percenters who beat them daily with an economic billy club. Middle-class whites, stung by the Great Recession, are just now getting a foreclosing taste of what it’s like to be black in America.

But don’t get it twisted: We’re not all laying up in jails waiting for you to fix it.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.