How Successful Could Bernie Sanders Be At Winning Over Black Voters?

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is running for President, on the Democratic ticket, and he is failing to connect with a key Democratic constituency: African-Americans.

Democrats are pinning their electoral fortunes on black and Latino voters. If he is going to be a worthy challenger against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders will pretty much have to go beyond the kind of post-racial political message he maintained in his home state and connect with voters who don’t look like him.

“I haven’t seen him engaging the black community. Nor am I hearing any chatter about him,” said Rick Wade, Obama for America’s African-American vote director. “Black voters don’t know him.” Last month, there was a CNN/ORC poll which showed just 2% of black Democrats supporting Sanders, a figure that has not changed at all since February. Among non-white voters overall, Sanders polls at about 9%, compared to Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming 61%.

This difficult challenge was made even more apparent at this weekend’s Netroots Nation conference, a gathering of thousands of left-leaning Democrats. Sanders and his aides have always said that his central message of fixing income inequality, providing universal health care and increasing the minimum wage will help all Americans — Latinos and African-Americans most of all. He’s got Killer Mike’s support.

In his campaign announcement and in other speeches, Sanders bashes oligarchs and vows to take on the “billionaire class.” But most of the time, he seems to remain pretty silent on immigration, racial inequality, police brutality and criminal justice reform. And if you’re going to win the black vote, these are the things you need to be talking about right now.

Sanders recently tweeted: “We must energize minorities all across the country to engage in the Democratic process and thwart efforts to disenfranchise minority voters.”

“It’s important for him to make sure the core constituencies know who he is,” said Tad Devine, a senior campaign adviser. “We have a story to tell about him and we are going to campaign actively in different communities.”

“If he is going to have a serious national campaign, he is going to have to better reflect the changing demographics with his team. Diversity is a strength,” said Hal Colston, a black Sanders supporter who runs Partnership for Change, a non-profit education group in Vermont. “Bernie gets it and he does listen. He’s always been the champion for the person left behind. He knows he has to update his rhetoric and he is already showing signs of expanding the conversation.”

But at the Netroots Nation conference, Sanders was almost shouted off of the stage. Sanders made it clear that he was prepared to leave rather than be forced to shout over the crowd. “If you don’t want me to be here, that’s okay. I don’t want to outscream people,” Sanders said. When the crowd indicated that he should stay, Sanders said, “Black people are dying in this country, because we have a criminal justice system which is out of control, a system in which over 50% of young African-American kids are unemployed.” But when the subject of the Affordable Care Act came up, one protester yelled, “We can’t afford that!” and some headed straight for the doors.

But even Hillary Clinton has had trouble keeping up with the rhetoric of young, progressive blacks. In a speech at a black church near Ferguson last month, Hillary said “all lives matter,” rather than “black lives matter.” Grassroots activists, who view these kinds of generalizations as simply a way to sidestep specific race-based discussions, became outraged. So the answer to the initial question…it does not look like the odds are currently in his favor.

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