Can Bernie Sanders Win Over Black Lives Matter? He Seems to Be Trying

The progressive candidate has been making a sharper distinction between racial and economic issues. If you like his campaign, that’s really good news.
Bernie Sanders. Photo by Juli Hansen.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders may soon rejoice, as the progressive rock star is showing signs of making progress in how he speaks about the issue that until now seemed most likely to derail his campaign: race.

Sanders  stressed  noneconomic solutions to systemic racism.

In July, Sanders, found himself interrupted repeatedly during a public appearance at Netroots Nation, a progressive media conference, as protesters affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Movement chanted “Say her name!”—a reference to Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died after being taken into police custody. Sanders attempted to outshout the interlopers with his trademark talking points on the economy and campaign finance reform.

The incident was the first pellet in what has become a hail of criticism directed at Sanders. A recent op-ed in the Guardian by Sabrina Hersi Issa summed up the crux of the argument lobbed at the Vermont Senator by many anti-racist and Black Lives Matter organizers:

his ability to address race is limited to the scope of wealth and the economy. … He speaks almost exclusively among issues which thrill white liberals: campaign finance reform and economic justice.

The senator’s detractors add that his rendering of uniquely racial quandaries—such as police brutality, disproportionate incarceration, and educational inequity—as economic woes is not an adequate solution to address what they see as deplorable symptoms of systemic racism.

The self-identified democratic socialist has changed the way he talks about race.

These assessments could not land at a worse time for the Sanders campaign, as the nation finds itself gripped in a national conversation around race relations ignited by a rash of police killings of black people, including Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. A recent New York Times/CBS poll revealed that both black and white Americans hold an increasingly grim view of race relations.

But in recent weeks, the self-identified democratic socialist has changed the way he talks about race and offered a more sophisticated message.

“We have got to say loudly and clearly that we will no longer tolerate police brutality in this country!” Sanders said to a receptive audience at the National Urban League in early August. “We have got to come together as a nation and work to eliminate structural racism in this country.”

Just a few days later, on a conference call with regional media from the Pacific Northwest, he again made a sharp distinction between racial and economic factors.

“I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. when he marched for jobs and justice, and it is that justice part that has been such a travesty,” he asserted.

Sanders went on to stress some noneconomic solutions to systemic racism including prison reform and pointed repeatedly to the case of Sandra Bland as an outrageous example of police overreach.

However, the senator did not completely abandon his melding of economic and racial problems, using economic statistics to suggest a focus on systemic racism alone would not completely solve black America’s problems.

“Do you know what the black youth unemployment rate is?” he asked the journalists on the call.

None of us knew the answer.

“51 percent,” he said. He stressed the importance of combating both racism and the dire economic straits many blacks find themselves attached to, simultaneously.

With African-American’s voting for Democratic presidential candidates at a higher percentage than any other race, it is unlikely Sanders will win the presidency without them. Perhaps his recent change in rhetoric will open the door to a base he struggles to connect with.

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