As Bernie Sanders seeks to broaden his national appeal among the black and Latino voters who would be critical to his success in a 2020 presidential campaign, the white senator from Vermont is struggling to improve a complicated relationship with racial justice leaders in his own backyard.
In an open letter to Sanders and an institute that now bears his name, more than a dozen racial and social justice advocates from across the state write that they’ve been “excluded” from the “national progressive movement that Senator Bernie Sanders is trying to foster.”
The flashpoint for this latest conflict between Sanders and prominent Vermonters of color came last week, when the Sanders Institute hosted a three-day “gathering” in Burlington that convened progressive luminaries from around the world.
Notably absent from the event, according to signatories of the open letter to Sanders, were the racial justice leaders from Vermont who have been working for decades on the civil rights issues the event sought to address.
“How do you say that you are a person of the people, how can you be ‘awoken’, in the words of Victor Lee Lewis, when you come home to Vermont to talk about justice and institutional oppression and don’t invite the very people your (sic) represent?” read the letter, which began circulating Saturday.
People of color aren't the only ones feeling left out. The letter has also been signed by representatives of organizations that focus on a range of social justice issues, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools.
In an email Monday, the Sanders Institute responded, "We understand the overall concerns the writers of the letter addressed and will continue to work for the same goals of racial, social, economic and environmental justice."
Sanders' senior press advisor, Dan McLean, said Sanders' “Senate office is not connected in any way to the Sanders Institute.”
Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, said the explanation from Sanders' camp “rings hollow.”
“To suggest that he has no influence on the institute is ludicrous when it carries his name,” Reed said in an interview Monday. “If it was uppermost in his mind that the institute needs to reflect marginalized voices starting in the state of Vermont, then that would have been paramount in the organization of this launch that they did.”
The Sanders Institute event wasn’t devoid of people of color. Philosopher and political activist Cornel West was on hand to speak, as was the actor Danny Glover and former national NAACP President Ben Jealous.
McLean said Monday that "the senator is proud that the Sanders Institute was able to bring progressives from all over the country and from throughout the world to our state of Vermont to discuss some of the biggest issues we face."
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the Rutland-area branch of the NAACP, said those high-profile, national voices no doubt lent valuable and important perspective to whatever conversations unfolded in Burlington.
“But I would think that you would invite the people that you represent, the people that are local to where you are even holding the event, to speak about the issues that they experience, and especially those folks who are leading the way in trying to do grassroots organizing around those very issues that they’re talking about,” Pohl-Moore said. “And from what I can tell, at this point, the vast majority of us were not even invited.”
Concerns with Sanders’ track record on racial justice issues in Vermont are longstanding. In 2015, Reed penned an open letter to Sanders bemoaning his conspicuous absence from racial justice issues in Vermont.
During a high-profile debate over a Confederate Army mascot at Brattleboro Union High School, for example, where the "Stars and Bars" flag used to be flown at many of the school’s sporting events, Reed said “Bernie was silent.”
Reed also said he subsequently “offered up some suggestions for Sen. Sanders to sort of get with the program, have an understanding that there are folks of color in Vermont, that we are a striving for racial and social justice in the state.”
“And we haven’t seen him do that,” Reed said.
Reed said the exclusion of Vermonters of color from the Sanders Institute event — an event at which Sanders himself delivered the keynote address — “is a catastrophic failure of his sort of tone deafness to marginalized communities in the state of Vermont.”
“I’m tempted to say this is no longer a question of benign neglect on the part of the senator, but willful ignorance on his part not to include marginalized voices in this national conversation on the progressive movement,” Reed said.
Sanders long ago acknowledged the importance of black voters to his presidential aspirations. A few months after launching his first presidential campaign in 2015, Sanders told the New York Times, “if we are going to do well nationally, it’s absolutely imperative that we aggressively reach out and bring the African-American community and the Latino community into our campaign.”
“And that is exactly what we’re working on right now,” Sanders said.
As he openly ponders another presidential bid in 2020, Sanders is again courting voters of color. And in a written statement Monday, McLean said Vermonters of color remain a focal point of Sanders' social justice agenda.
"Needless to say, in Vermont, like other states across the country, there are some very serious social and racial justice challenges, and the senator looks forward to continuing his work with Vermonters on these issues," McLean said.
Some black leaders in Vermont, however, say Sanders has yet to lend his powerful voice to the racial justice work being done by their local organizations.
“I would say that in southern Vermont, where my branch is located, I have not seen much or heard much from the Sanders camp, as far as racial justice organizing is concerned,” said Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP.
Gillom, who signed the latest open letter to Sanders, said the criticism “is not about tearing down Bernie Sanders or his movement.”
But Gillom said the fact that he doesn’t know a single Vermonter of color who was invited to the Sanders Institute event last week is an oversight with which Sanders, and the institute, need to reckon.
“We have a lot of civil rights leaders of color here in the small state of Vermont that have really fought tooth and nail … to foster an environment where people can feel included,” Gillom said. “Unfortunately, for a lot of people of color in Vermont, that is not the case. They feel that this is a progressive blue haven, but maybe not for people with black or brown skin.”
Like Gillom, Pohl-Moore said she isn’t seeking to damage Sanders’ reputation among people of color nationally, or to erode his political footing.
But she said the issues Reed raised in his 2015 letter to Sanders — namely Sanders' lack of involvement in Vermont’s grassroots racial justice movement — “is just as relevant now as it was then.”
“This is our frustration with the progressive movement and Bernie Sanders in particular, in relationship to his own state, is that he is not really considering us or lifting our voices and experience and doing the progressive agenda in his own backyard,” Pohl-Moore said. “And that’s a hard thing to say. Bernie Sanders is a very popular guy. He’s got some really great ideas.”
Update: This post was updated at 9:54 a.m. to include other organizations that signed onto the open letter