Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to the crowd during the King Day at the Dome rally at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia on Jan. 18, 2016.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, stands to the left of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton on some issues. But many wonder whether he, after serving a state with few minorities, truly understands the concerns of African Americans.

With the 2016 presidential election season under way, The Root is focusing on leading candidates of both parties in our Meet the Candidates series, running this week. In it we’re taking a look at their positions on a number of issues of concern for the African-American community.


Black Lives Matter

Over the summer, the NAACP launched its first chapter in Vermont—one of the whitest states in America. An Associated Press report on the first meeting noted that only about 20 of the 80 attendees were black, underscoring the state’s liberal leaning.

Despite Vermont’s progressive reputation, Black Lives Matter representatives question whether Sanders, one of the state’s two senators (the other is Democrat Patrick Leahy), could understand their concerns. Sanders, a native New Yorker, met with them in September to start a dialogue.

Johnetta Elzie, one of the activists at the meeting, said, “I made it very clear that he has not won over a large demographic of black people in this country, no matter how progressive he seems, and that his policy platform, that his past history of dealing with black people from his place of power in [Vermont], is also a concern in our community.”


In a statement to the Huffington Post, Sanders assured the movement that he gets it. “I look forward to a continuing dialogue with Campaign Zero and other voices from communities of color to address deeply entrenched racial and economic problems in our country,” he said.

Criminal-Justice Reform

Sanders’ campaign website lays out his criminal-justice policy positions in a sweeping racial-justice category that touches on several “central types of violence” against people of color.


Addressing physical violence against people of color is at the top of his list. Sanders calls for the demilitarization of police departments, community policing and aggressive prosecution of cops who break the law.

He also calls for an end to legal violence against minorities. His reforms would include eliminating mandatory minimums in the “failed war on drugs,” which results in sentencing disparities. He also calls for an end to the privatized prison system because it creates incentives for over-incarceration.


Voting Rights

If elected, the candidate would also address what he describes as political violence that continues to disenfranchise minorities. He calls on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision, which provided federal oversight of state election laws. The erosion of that oversight has enabled states to impose voter-ID laws and other restrictive practices that Sanders says are tantamount to the old literacy laws in Southern states.


Raising Incomes

When it comes to addressing economic disparities, it’s no surprise that Sanders fully backs the Fight for $15, in which low-wage workers are demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage.


“It is a national disgrace that millions of full-time workers are living in poverty and millions more are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay their bills,” he says. “A job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised to a living wage.”

Sanders has already introduced a minimum wage bill and proposes a menu of solutions to end income inequality.


College Affordability

Education is a key to raising incomes. But the ever increasing cost of a college education discourages many and keeps others in debt—sometimes for years after earning a degree.


Sanders proposes a six-step solution toward free tuition at public colleges and universities. As president, Sanders would also push for sharp reductions in student-loan interest rates and allow refinancing for those already burdened with high interest rates.

Where does the money come from for free tuition? A tax on Wall Street. Sanders says that more than 1,000 economists have endorsed his proposal to impose a small tax on speculators “who nearly destroyed the economy.”


Health Care

Sanders supports the Affordable Care Act but doesn’t think it goes far enough. He told CNN, after the Supreme Court’s decision in June to uphold key provisions of the health care law, that the United States should guarantee health care as a right, as other wealthy Western countries do.


Sanders also vows to fight for affordable prescription drugs. His plan includes requiring Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for better prices and allowing the import of prescription drugs from licensed Canadian pharmacies.

Gun Control

An area of vulnerability for Sanders as a Democratic candidate is his record on gun control in the aftermath of the Charleston, S.C., church massacre last year.


During the Democratic debate in October, CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted that Sanders opposed the Brady Act’s mandatory background check and waiting period; he also resisted holding gun manufacturers accountable for mass shootings.

“I think guns and gun control is an issue that needs to be discussed,” Sanders told NPR. “Let me add to that, I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about, where 99 percent of the people in my state who hunt are law-abiding people.”


Sanders, though, supports President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on gun control. He told CNN that bipartisan action would have been preferable, but the GOP is not interested in gun safety.

“The vast majority of the American people are horrified by the mass shootings we have seen. They want action,” he said.



Sanders caused a political stir—some would say a backlash—when he expressed opposition to reparations for the descendants of former slaves. The Vermont senator said such legislation would have no chance of passing in Congress. Instead, he proposes “massive investments” in the African-American community to address the myriad problems that plague black people.


Up next in the Meet the Candidates series: A look at where Republican front-runner Donald Trump stands on the issues.

Nigel Roberts is a New York City-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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