When Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley were onstage at the progressive activism conference Netroots Nation on July 18, they were interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter protesters, who asked them to say the names of black women who had died in police custody, a reference specifically to Sandra Bland, who had died of an apparent suicide on July 13 after being jailed for a minor traffic violation three days earlier.
Sanders, who has a history of involvement in the civil rights movement dating back to the 1960s, was criticized for appearing callous and condescending.
“Black lives, of course, matter…but if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK,” he said as protesters booed and shouted, while he transitioned to his stump speech on economic inequality.
Although both O’Malley and Sanders were seemingly caught off guard, in the aftermath they began incorporating the protesters’ questions and assertions into their rhetoric.
O’Malley apologized shortly after the incident.
Sanders went on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday to respond. He said that, to him, #BlackLivesMatter and economic injustice are intertwined, calling them “parallel problems.”
“We have to end institutional racism, but we have to deal with the reality that 50 percent of young black kids are unemployed, that we have massive poverty in America, that we have an unsustainable level of income and wealth inequality,” he told Chuck Todd on July 26.
“As Martin Luther King told us, we have to address both.”
Sanders, as mayor and then governor of a predominantly white state, would theoretically have an advantage with his 50-plus years of civil rights activism. Despite his bona fides, he has never needed to court a black vote — a fact he’s acknowledged. And that’s where the disconnect occurs.
As Barrett Holmes Pitner, a black journalist for The Daily Beast who interned for Sanders over a decade ago explained, his messaging has little appeal to black voters and, because he comes from a tiny white state, most don’t even know who he is. “…[B]lack voices question his credibility because he has never needed to prove himself to this community. Being a champion of civil rights within a bastion of white America holds little sway with black voters.”
But now it’s time to try.
On Meet the Press, Sanders affirmed his support for what the protesters stood for.
“The issue they raised is actually a very important issue…This is an issue of concern that I strongly share,” he said, though he rejected the notion that institutional racism and inequality were two separate issues, which is the crux of the debate among many activists.
As Ryan Cooper argues in The Week, race and class are not independent of each other:
Being poor is a known factor in about every social ill. Blacks do commit more crime than whites on a per capita basis, but this is largely explained by a poverty rate that is nearly three times greater. Thus, poor neighborhoods suffer both a lot of crime and crushingly heavy policing. When they are arrested, poor people often can’t afford bail, or to hire a decent attorney, leaving them defenseless before the incarceration machine.
Poverty means constant stress and exhaustion as people struggle to balance critical needs on a tight budget — and its disadvantage is transmitted through time. Family income is tightly correlated with children’s test scores, chance of college attendance, and future class position. Money, quite simply, is power.
And it’s power that the activists are fighting against; entrenched interests that have historically dismissed their concerns. That’s why #BernieSoBlack, a hashtag mocking Sanders’ comments at Netroots Nation, trended last week.
Incorporating the language of #BlackLivesMatter seems to be Sanders’ next move on this front. In addition to attending the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — a black civil rights organization whose first president was Dr. King — over the weekend, he toured Louisiana, which has the second largest black population in the country, holding rallies and fundraisers. But while he’s got the momentum among mostly white liberal voters, blacks — and other minorities — are still waiting to see if he can effectively understand them.
Photo: Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation, July 18, 2015. yashmori via Flickr