Bernie Sanders’ ‘Ghetto’ Gaffe Gave Clinton Supporters the Ammunition They Needed

The senator from Vermont stepped on a racial land mine. Will his campaign recover?

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders participates in the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate with rival Hillary Clinton March 6, 2016, in Flint, Mich. Michigan voters go to the polls March 8 for the state’s primary.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders participates in the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate with rival Hillary Clinton March 6, 2016, in Flint, Mich. Michigan voters go to the polls March 8 for the state’s primary. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Before the Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., Sunday, critics of presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed that he didn’t have an intersectional, socioeconomic racial analysis.

But after his triggering use of the loaded words “ghetto” and “poor” when answering a question about his “racial blind spots” posed by CNN’s Don Lemon, many of those same critics now believe that he does have just such an analysis—just the wrong one.

I was with some young people active in the Black Lives Matter movement. Young lady comes up to me and she says, “You don’t understand what police do in certain black communities,” Sanders said, recounting the experience. “You don’t understand the degree to which we are terrorized. And I’m not just talking about the horrible shootings—which we’ve gotta end, and we’ve gotta hold police officers accountable—I’m just talking about everyday activities where police officers are bullying people.”

So far, so good, right? But then this happened:

So to answer your question, I would say, and it’s similar to what the Secretary [Clinton] said, when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in the ghetto; you don’t know what it’s like to be poor [emphasis added]; you don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car. And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal-justice system.

*Flag on the play*

I immediately cringed at the unforced error, turned to my husband and said, “There’s the headline for tomorrow.” 

Not because Sanders isn’t correct, but because I know how those words—coming from either a white liberal or conservative, or even a black person trafficking in respectability politics—strike a discordant chord in the psyches of some black Americans.

Still, and regardless of the outrage cycle that began immediately after Sanders’ statement, this is not his Clintonian “superpredator” moment. It was more his Obamian “My grandmother is a typical white person who fears black men” moment.

Though both Clinton and Obama evoked white fear of black bodies, which is the prelude to policies designed to control and destroy those bodies, both Obama and Sanders were attempting to illustrate how oblivious most white people are to the realities of being black in America, whereas Clinton was attempting to justify a reality in which more black children would be locked behind bars.

The problematic part of Sanders’ statement for me was his continued assertion that the criminal-justice system is broken. As I’ve said many times, the system is functioning exactly as intended—marginalizing exactly whom it was designed to marginalize, targeting exactly whom it was designed to target and killing exactly whom it was designed to kill.

To say that the system is “broken”—a system that he, as a white, male politician in the United States, has been both complicit in and benefited from—implies that it was ever an equitable and just system in the first place. Without a doubt, however, Sanders knows that it’s just not some black communities that are poor. In fact, he has been heavily criticized for speaking from, as the Rev. Sekou said, an “economic-determinist position that flattens out all nuances into class distinctions, which is important, but it’s insufficient.”

In a recent piece where I discussed the viability (or lack thereof) of a radical black movement within the Democratic Party, I touched on the myriad ways that black, brown and indigenous people have been historically and strategically oppressed in this country, writing:

… it is not that all black Americans are living in poverty or struggling. It is that black people were intended, as laid out in this Constitution, to be second-class citizens. It is that those who have benefited from this racist racket, despite trafficking in mediocrity, have not had to shift and contort themselves in order to navigate systems of oppression intended for them to fail.

So, when Bernie Sanders says—in the context of speaking to a young black woman telling him that white people don’t know how it feels to be terrorized by police in certain black neighborhoods, particularly where low-level arrests are made both to criminalize black and brown people and to pad the state’s budget—we know, or should know, exactly what he means when he says that white people don’t know what it is to be “poor” or to live in the “ghetto.”

When you’re black living in conditions that are at turns glorified, politicized and pathologized, the rules and the mood all change.