Here’s That Time Bernie Sanders Bellowed ‘I’ve Said Black 50 Times’ at Black Audience, and Why


In the run-up to Bernie Sanders‘ 2020 presidential campaign launch, a clip of Sanders has been circulating online that shows the independent Vermont senator bellowing “I’ve said ‘black’ 50 times! That’s the 51st time!”

Although I had followed the 2016 campaign very closely, that particular moment was new to me. The quote is from a February 2016 forum on race at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, and it came weeks after Sanders had come out against reparations for slavery. Toward the end of the forum, a small business owner named Felicia Perry pointedly asked Sanders about the issue of reparations, and noted his tendency to shift his answers away from the black community.

Describing the impact of environmental racism on her son, Perry said “The question specifically, my black son, okay, I know you’re scared to say black, I know you are scared to say reparations because…”

“No, ma’am I don’t think that’s a fair statement,” Sanders interrupted.

“I let you finish as well,” Perry continued, “but it seems like every time we talked about black people and us getting something for the systemic oppression and exploitation of our people, we have to include every other person of color, so today can we please talk about specifically black people and reparations?”

Sanders responded by immediately pivoting away from black people and reparations, and completely ignored her question.

“You and I may have a disagreement on this,” Sanders said, “because it’s not just black, and it is Latino, there are areas in America, including poor rural areas, where it is white. Okay?”

As Sanders continued his subject-change, he reacted to an unintelligible comment from the audience by bellowing “I’ve said ‘black’ fifty times, okay? That was the fifty-first time!”

Sanders plowed ahead with his answer, and when he was finished, someone in the audience (likely Perry) shouted “Just don’t erase history, though!”

As a public service, I decided to fact-check Sanders, tabulating every time he had said the word “black” during the forum. Turns out that was the eighth time.

That moment is among many that demonstrate Sanders’ difficulty in connecting with Democratic voters who care about issues that he derides as “identity politics,” which has been a consistent theme of Sanders’ for years. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, for example, he yelled at another crowd that “It is not good enough for somebody to say ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me!” and “It’s not good enough to say we’ve got ‘x’ number of African Americans and ‘y’ number of Latinos,” and “It is not good enough for somebody to say ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!'”

Those remarks drew glowing praise from Kellyanne Conway, but not so much from large portions of the Democratic base.

The insulting premise of those statements is that there are candidates who say “I’m a woman/Latina/other identity, vote for me!” and that voters who care about issues specific to marginalized groups are making their decisions on that basis.

Lest you think Sanders has changed in the intervening years, he made the same insulting claim just a few weeks ago. In an interview with GQ, Sanders said that his (presumably Democratic) opponents “think that all that we need is people who are candidates who are black or white, who are black or Latino or woman or gay, regardless of what they stand for.”

And on the very first day of his campaign, Sanders fretted about the need for a “non-discriminatory” society. One that doesn’t discriminate against old white males.

“We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age,” Sanders told Vermont Public Radio. “I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”

On the day of Sanders’ announcement, former senior Hillary Clinton campaign adviser Jess McIntosh gently explained Sanders’ problem, that he frames issues like abortion as “a social issue and  not an economic one,” and for discussing economic inequality without a “race or a gender lens.”

“The day that you announce, to suggest that Kamala’s fans were somehow with her because she was a black woman, or any of the other people in the field,” McIntosh said, “I think starting this race from a place where you feel disadvantaged as a white guy running for president is not going to be the position of strength you want.”

What’s deeply maddening, though, is that Sanders’ insulting view of “identity politics” is coupled not just with a policy focus that erases issues of race and gender, but with a long history of explicitly centering the concerns of white voters.

Immediately after the 2016 election, it was Sanders who invoked his own white identity when he said that “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”

Sanders has also consistently defended Trump voters, and once told the crowd at a 2017 rally that he even identifies with them. “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks,” Sanders sad. “I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.”

In a 2017 interview with Seth Meyers, Sanders differentiated minorities from “ordinary Americans,” and explicitly subordinated their issues. “We have got to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos and blacks and people in the gay community, we’ve got to fight back every day on those issues,” Sanders said, but then added “But equally important, or more important, we have got to focus on bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.”

More recently, Sanders said in an interview that people who felt “uncomfortable” voting for a black candidate are “not necessarily racist,” which is literally the opposite of what not being racist is.

Sanders’ campaign has launched with an impressive fundraising haul, but so far, it doesn’t seem like he’s learned that it takes more than saying “black” 51 times to win over voters who don’t view policy issues specific to certain communities as “identity politics,” but as the “bread and butter” issues that they are.

Watch the clip above, via The Cut.

[Image via screengrab]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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