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Sanders Stumbles Over Black Lives Matter, Vermont African-American Leader Reaches Out

Ross D. Franklin
Sen. Bernie Sanders tries to speak as he is shouted down by protesters as moderator Jose Vargas, left, tries to quiet the protesters in the crowd at a Netroots Nation town hall meeting on July 18 in Phoenix.

After a rocky encounter with civil rights protestors last week, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is putting a new focus on issues of racial injustice. But one African-American leader in Vermont says it will take more than campaign platforms for Sanders to connect with people of color.

At the Phoenix Convention Center in Arizona last Saturday, during an event put on by progressive activists, members of the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted speeches by Bernie Sanders and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Sanders, visibly irritated by the protestors’ conduct, tried at first to talk through their chants. Finally, he offered this:

“Listen, black lives of course matter, and I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights, and for dignity,” Sanders said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s okay.”

The self-affirmation of his civil rights credentials came off as tone deaf and dismissive to many members of the movement.

The candidate has worked in recent days to recast himself as a champion for racial justice, seeking input from African-American leaders, and making more explicit mention of racial issues in his platform.

"Listen, black lives of course matter, and I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights, and for dignity." - Sen. Bernie Sanders, after being interrupted by Black Lives Matter protestors

But while Sanders’ new focus on criminal justice reform and dismantling structural racism are welcome, Curtiss Reed Jr. says they aren’t sufficient.

“There are sort of two issues at hand here: one is the campaign, and the other is Bernie,” Reed says. “Our concern is really about Bernie.”

Reed is the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. The organization works to help business and community leaders identify racial bias — both in themselves and the institutions they run — and try to minimize its negative impacts on people of color.

Reed says that in Sanders’ decades in Vermont politics, he’s been conspicuously absent from conversations about race and racism. For example a decade ago there was a high-profile debate over a Confederate Army mascot at Brattleboro Union High School and the Stars and Bars flown at many sporting events. Reed says Sanders was nowhere to be found during the dispute.

“During the height of the struggle for getting those removed, Bernie was silent,” Reed says.

In the wake of the incident in Arizona, Reed has penned an open letter to Sanders, urging the senator to take some time back in Vermont so he can better understand the challenges faced by people of color in his home state. Reed says the Vermont Partnership stands ready to facilitate those conversations and to work with Sanders to help him better understand his own racial biases.

“But this plan that we have, which is really specific to Bernie, takes into account the absence of contact that he’s had with Vermonters of color over the decades,” Reed says.

"This plan that we have, which is really specific to Bernie, takes into account the absence of contact that he's had with Vermonters of color over the decades." - Curtiss Reed, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity

In his letter to Sanders, Reed says that as a result of Arizona, the senator appears to have made an important transition.

“In a moment of bewildered frustration after your encounter with Black Lives Matter activists in Arizona, you asked, ‘How do we best deal with racism in America?’” Reed wrote. “Your inquiry and affect indicated to us that you have moved from a state of being ‘unconsciously unskillful’ with people of color to a state of being ‘consciously unskillful.’”

Reed however says Sanders will have to put in some work if he wants to achieve the “conscious skill" needed to work effectively on issues of racial justice. Reed says that work should involve including “Vermonters of color in the conversation about his campaign, and the direction the campaign is going in.”

“We think it would be highly instructive for Bernie’s own personal growth,” Reed says.

Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science, and the director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University. Harris says African-Americans will make up 20 percent of Democratic primary voters and that the outcome of key states will hinge on candidates appeal to black voters.

“I think it’s going to be very important for both he, Hillary Clinton and Gov. O’Malley to really stake out issue positions, policy positions, particularly around the hot-button issue of the day: criminal justice reform,” Harris says.

Harris says African-American voters tend to vote in a bloc and have ben vital to the electoral success of past Democratic presidential candidates, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who won more than 90 percent of the black vote in 2012.

Closing the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has long been the touchstone of Sanders’ political agenda. But while African-Americans are more likely to live in poverty than whites, Harris says that issue alone isn’t going to satisfy black voters.

“I think he needs to make a clear distinction between his sort of economic agenda… as well as what we’re going to do about the continuing perpetuation of racial inequality within the United States,” Harris says.

Credit Andrew Harnik / AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders has gotten traction around his economic issues, like this rally to push for a raise to the minimum wage to $15 an hour on July 22 in DC. But African-American leaders say the candidate needs to distinguish between economic disparity and racial inequality.

Reed agrees.

“And this is sort of the tactical error that Bernie makes, is that it’s not just about income,” Reed says.

Reed says it’s not too late for Sanders to achieve the personal growth he says is needed to become an effective leader for the communities of color.

“He has it in him, if he wants it to happen,” Reed says.

And Harris says that African-American votes are still anyone’s for the taking.

“I think this is pretty much an open field,” Harris says of the Democratic primary. “I wouldn’t necessarily think that Hillary Clinton is automatically going to get the support of black voters.”

Reed says that according to a campaign aide, Sanders has read his open letter, and is considering a meeting Reed. The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

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