Sen. Bernie Sanders has a story for black audiences. They’ve just heard it already.
“I was actually at the March on Washington with Dr. King back in 1963,” Sanders likes to remind audiences. “As somebody who actively supported Jesse Jackson’s campaign — as one of the few white elected officials to do so in ’88 — I have dedicated my life to the fight against racism and sexism and discrimination of all forms.”
His most recent audience, at a candidate forum in Texas dedicated to women of color, She the People, responded with a round of groans.
Four years after his first campaign for president, when the senator from Vermont struggled to win over black voters against Hillary Clinton, Sanders, 77, is speaking more forcefully about racial justice and equality. He has worked to secure endorsements from black lawmakers, including seven in the key state of South Carolina last month. In the face of criticism, he has stood by his proposal to restore voting rights to incarcerated people — one supported by more than 70 civil rights groups. And his advisers have pointed repeatedly to early polls showing his campaign performing well among black voters, particularly those of a younger generation.
But black leaders and activists say that Sanders, when questioned, keeps pointing to his actions in the ’60s and ’80s — when they’re looking to hear what he would do for them now.
“It felt like when white people say, ‘Well, I have black friends,’” said Leah Daughtry, a longtime Democratic Party official who helped organize the She the People forum last month and worked closely with Jackson on his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.
“I know that’s not what he meant, but he seems to be struggling to come up with the phraseology that demonstrates his commitment to people of color and to issues that are specific to people of color that are more relevant and up-to-date,” she said. “Something from the 2000s. Something from this decade.”
If Democrats are frustrated with Sanders’ “phraseology,” there is equal frustration inside his campaign toward the continued suggestion that the senator can’t connect with voters of color.
Sanders’ campaign co-chair, Nina Turner, recently asked a crowd in Fort Worth, Texas, “In what world when you’re sitting on a stage telling people about your history, and you mention the fact that you were in the March on Washington with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Fort Worth, in what world do people boo that? That happened to Sen. Sanders yesterday, and I’m calling it out.
“People want to strip the senator of his history,” Turner said.
The response drew more criticism from activists who say they weren’t booing his participation in the march but what they see as an inability to articulate plans or actions from the present.
“I don’t believe that those groans were related to King,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People. “It was related to harkening back to something that happened before most of the people in that room were born. When we have an immediate and pressing threat now.”
The Sanders campaign declined to comment for this story.
Sanders, who pored over political philosophy in the stacks at the University of Chicago library and came into his career in politics as a civil rights proponent and staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, has repeatedly cited his formative years as an activist as a sign of commitment to racial justice. His supporters often tweet photos of Sanders being arrested during a civil rights demonstration at voters of color on Twitter who question the candidate’s platform.
Anoa Changa, a progressive activist from Georgia who attended the She the People forum, said she felt discomfort in the room as Sanders talked about King.
“It feels dismissive when you’re saying these things to people time and again,” Changa said. “It’s been several years that this critique has been raised, and it feels dismissive of our experiences when it doesn’t matter what specific question is being asked — when the go-to answer has become, ‘I marched with King.’
“I supported Sen. Sanders during his campaign [in 2016]. I understand the distinctiveness of some people who feel like it’s them against the establishment and the whole world,” Changa said. “But not everybody is against you — just because people aren’t in your specific space doesn’t make them the enemy and the establishment. It’s really important to ground it in the room and [in] why the meeting in that room occurred.”
Questions over how much Sanders is doing to directly address the concerns of black people in this particular moment have followed the early phase of his campaign.
When he appeared at a student town hall last week in Manchester, New Hampshire, hosted by CNN, Kenya Hunter, a black graduate student from Emerson College, stood up to ask the senator how he planned to bridge the wealth gap specifically for black people, particularly given his opposition to monetary reparations for descendants of enslaved people.
“Your views on reparations have sort of surprised me, especially since one of the messages of your campaign is closing the wealth gap,” Hunter told Sanders. “For black people, the wealth gap stems from the aftermath of slavery, like legal segregation and discrimination. If reparations are not part of your plan to end the wealth gap for black people, what is?”
Sanders reiterated his position on the issue: Under his presidency, if the House and Senate passed a bill to study the implications of reparations, he’d sign it. He also told the crowd that he believes the best way to improve those disparities is House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s 10-20-30 plan — a bill that would give 10% of federal funds to communities whose poverty levels hit 20% or higher in the past 30 years, but wouldn’t specifically target black communities.
“That is a lot of money to focus on communities all over this country, often minority communities, black communities, Latino communities, Native American communities, white communities, who have long-term poverty, and we focus on those communities,” Sanders said before leaning into some of his familiar campaign promises.
Hunter left the town hall unsatisfied by his answer.
“I want y’all to know that Bernie’s answer was not enough for me,” she tweeted.
During the She the People forum, Allison and her co-moderator at the event, MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid, pushed Sanders to speak specifically about issues that people of color are facing.
In response to a question about what role the federal government should play in combating “white nationalism and white terrorist acts,” Sanders criticized the Trump administration before launching into his economic platform as audience members yelled, “What about black people?”
Daughtry, who attended She the People, recalled a woman sitting next to her who, at one point, exclaimed, “‘He just ‘All lives matter’-ed us.”
“I was like, ‘Oh goodness.’ You go from women of color to all women? Wrong crowd for that. Just the wrong crowd. And I think that’s when women started yelling, ‘Answer the question, answer the question.’”
Changa, the Georgia-based activist, said that if the candidate wants to be “the most progressive progressive of progressives,” he’ll need to be better prepared to speak to women of color. “You’re leading something that you’re calling a political revolution,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for people who you’re telling you want our votes, our talents, and our resources, for us to say, if you want to build with us, you need to come correct. And so far, we’ll point it out when you’re not doing that.”
“Marching with King is history, but we have urgent needs in the present,” Allison said, pointing to recent events like shootings at mosques and synagogues, historically black churches being set on fire, and militias rounding up people crossing the border. “A lot of us were expecting a specific plan that we could understand, and we were expecting to be addressed as women of color.”
“This points to the need for the campaign and for Sen. Sanders himself to dig deep and evolve the way he speaks to this critical part of the base,” Allison said. “I believe he has lots of plans that speak to women of color’s economic concerns in terms of housing and health care. He has lots of plans that speak to their concerns, but the race shouldn’t stump him—not now.”
The exchanges reflect a candidate who hasn’t entirely eliminated the problems he had with speaking directly to black voters in 2016 — a Democratic primary that saw a new generation of young black leaders staging protests at campaign events across the country. At one memorable action in 2015, at the annual Netroots Nation conference for progressives, Sanders and his team left rattled by a tense back-and-forth with activists.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Sanders said amid repeated calls from the audience. “Let me talk about what I want to talk about for a moment.”
Finally, the senator noted that he’d spent “50 years of my life fighting for civil rights.”
From the crowd — in a precursor to what would play out nearly four years later at the She the People forum — a woman shouted back, “What are you doing about it now?”