Bernie Sanders on race: Did Black Lives Matter protest force his hand?

Bernie Sanders, a surprise challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been criticized for not doing enough to address institutional racism in America. He sought to counter those criticisms in weekend campaign appearances in mostly-white Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I) of Vermont, waves to supporters during the opening of his Cedar Rapids field headquarters, Sunday, in Marion, Iowa.

Bernie Sanders spent his weekend in Iowa trying to repair relations with African-American protest groups who recently interrupted his campaign appearances with accusations that he wasn’t working to address their concerns about institutional racism.

Senator Sanders (D) of Vermont is a surprise challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, but his campaign has focused heavily on economic issues. A self-proclaimed socialist, Sanders often blames the economic system for most issues, including racial inequality in the United States. But this stance has hurt his popularity with minority communities who make up a significant portion of the Democratic voter base.

The protest group Black Lives Matter – which has grown over the past year following the high-profile deaths of young African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement – says that Sanders’ focus on economic issues ignores many of their concerns about systemic, institutional racism in America.

Sanders – who represents a state that is 95-percent white – is not well known among African-American voters, but the depth of his unpopularity with that bloc was not clear until he was pushed off the stage by Black Lives Matter protesters at a campaign event in Seattle, Wash., earlier this month.

Since then, Sanders has been working to cultivate support with minority voters – even while appearing in front of mostly white audiences in rural Iowa.

At the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, Sanders praised the state’s electorate for voting for Barack Obama in 2008, the nation’s first black president. At a Democratic picnic in northern Iowa the next day, he went a step further, saying the next step for politicians is to address racial discrimination and the recent shootings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement.

During the speech, Sanders rattled off the names of victims in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere.

“On and on that list goes! That has got to end,” Sanders said, according to the Associate Press.

“I know that I speak for all of you that we are sick and tired of reading about and seeing videos of unarmed African-Americans being shot,” he added. "We know that if those individuals were white, the odds are very strong that would not have happened to them."

When the Senate returns from summer recess, Sanders said he plans to introduce legislation that would address the role of private corporations in the nation’s prison system. 

But according to political strategists, and polling data, it may be a case of too little too late as he seeks to beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Writing earlier this month, The Christian Science Monitor’s Husna Haq said that Sanders’ missteps on race “could spell the difference between a candidate who drains away [Mrs. Clinton’s] votes and one who is simply a passing nuisance.” 

“A June 22 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 95 percent of nonwhite Democratic voters said they could see themselves supporting Clinton for the nomination, support Clinton is working hard to cement, the Times reported. Only about one-quarter of respondents said they could see themselves voting for Sanders.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Clinton's support among blacks is eroding, but still high: some 66 percent of black voters have a positive view of her, compared to 15 percent who do not.”

“The Bernie Sanders voter is still a Volvo-driving, financially comfortable liberal who is pretty much white,” Paul Maslin, a pollster who worked on Democratic contender Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, told Ms. Haq. “I don’t see how Bernie takes large numbers of black voters away from Hillary Clinton, and he needs to if he wants any shot at the nomination.”

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