There’s a lot to appreciate about Sen. Bernie Sanders, a longtime public servant who’s helped propel truly progressive policies, like a $15 minimum wage and universal health care, into the mainstream political conversation.
But one frequent complaint is that the 76-year-old Sanders remains dusty on race matters, and critics of the Vermont senator have more evidence to cite in his latest appearance.
The latest perceived misstep came Thursday, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Speaking in Jackson, Miss., alongside progressive black Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (whose candidacy Sanders supported), Sanders honored the slain civil rights icon.
Here’s the quote in full, from BuzzFeed News:
“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” Sanders started, responding to a question about the young voters who supported his campaign. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 and 2012.
“He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But behind that reality, over the last 10 years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”
On the anniversary of King’s death, it would be the only reference Sanders made to the country’s first black president.
Critics of Sanders called the remarks tone-deaf, particularly given their timing:
But Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ top strategist, said that people had misunderstood the senator’s comments.
“What Bernie was doing last night was praising the power and significance of the Barack Obama presidency, while at the same time pointing out that the national Democratic Party has had a lot of failures over the last 15 years, as evidenced by our loss of state legislative and congressional seats,” Weaver said in response to the criticism, according to BuzzFeed News.
It should be noted that Sanders really didn’t talk about Barack Obama’s presidency, other than to say that it coincided with the failure of the Democratic Party. The plaudits Sanders gave Obama centered on his smarts and charisma as a candidate.
While the dustup over Sanders’ comments about Obama may seem like an unfair misreading, another, less-talked-about exchange seems to bolster a commonly held belief that the 2016 presidential candidate is still uncomfortable talking about race.
Take this, from the Washington Post:
Seated with Lumumba, the senator was asked about the marginalization of black LGBTQ citizens. He shifted the question to people “you didn’t talk about” like “people working two or three jobs” and “people who spend 50 percent of their limited income on housing.” He repeatedly turned discussion of fighting racism to fighting poverty.
Of course, the fight against poverty cuts across all racial demographics and is a pressing concern as economic inequality grows in the U.S. But any analysis of poverty that eschews race is incomplete and ignores very real and troubling trends—like how black and Latinx middle-class families are headed to zero wealth. It’s necessary to have targeted solutions to address this, and it’s necessary to have candidates comfortable with addressing this.
In his remarks in Jackson, Sanders also said that the Democratic Party “has got to be a 50-state party” and listen to voters all over the country, “including some of the poorest states.” Those presumably include Southern states, which Sanders had appeared eager to write off during the presidential primaries in 2016.
Sanders attributed his losses in the South to Democratic voters being more conservative in the region. If you want to know why that particular comment stung, just peep the map below, which shows America’s black population, in percentages:
Sanders’ latest remarks are undoubtedly another political Rorschach test: People inclined to distrust Sanders on race will remain concerned about his tone-deafness and inability to combine race and class analysis. Sanders’ supporters, meanwhile, will see another attempt from centrist Democrats to discredit a man whose support from young voters crossed racial lines.
The Vermont senator, who has shrugged off questions about a 2020 run, offers little in the way of clarity himself.
As BuzzFeed News reports, Sanders continues to frame civil rights and economic justice as two separate issues.
“Of course we need civil rights in this country, but we also need economic justice,” Sanders said backstage at the Jackson event.
But when asked by BuzzFeed about whether his presidential campaign had changed the way he talks about racial justice, Sanders affirmed that it had.
“It’s not a question of talking about it. It’s not phraseology. It’s what you’re gonna do about it,” he said. “Coming to Mississippi, coming to Alabama, to Flint, Mich.—did I learn something? Did I change as a part of that? Of course I did.”
But when pressed about how he changed, personally, Sanders again preferred to change the subject: “You’re asking about me. And I’m not important. What’s important are the kinds of policies that we need to transform this country. OK?”