About That Stump Speech, Bernie? Most Black Folks Haven’t Seen the Inside of a Jail

Blacks, Latinos and criminal justice don’t always go hand in hand. We have classes and jobs and bills, too.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders
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.

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.”

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.