WATCH: Bernie Sanders Said He Graduated High School With ‘A Lot More Than 1’ Black Student. He Did Not.
Independent Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was recently asked how many black students were in his high school graduating class, and he responded “A lot more than one,” but a review of the current Democratic frontrunners’ histories shows that’s not true of any of them.
It is a peculiar circumstance that the top three Democratic presidential candidates all went to high school during Jim Crow, and perhaps the last time this will be possible. Yet the subject of a segregated formative experience rarely comes up in a campaign that has centered racial justice, and has been completely absent from media coverage that treats racial issues as a mere political hurdle rather than a vital priority.
Consequently, very few people noticed when Sanders was asked about his high school experience at a recent education forum. Sanders told Rehema Ellis that there was one black student in his elementary school class, and she asked him about his high school class.
“A lot more than one,” Sanders replied.
“It wouldn’t be hard to be a lot more than one,” Ellis observed.
Damn. @rehemaellis: “How many children in your [elementary school] classroom were black?”
Bernie Sanders: “One.”
Ellis: High school?
Bernie: “A lot more than one.”
Ellis: “It wouldn’t be hard to be a lot more than one.” pic.twitter.com/zD9QcMSfwZ
— Tommy X-TrumpIsARacist-opher (@tommyxtopher) December 14, 2019
It was a throwaway exchange leading into a question about the de facto segregation that continues in our nation’s schools, and as I noted at the time, no other candidate was asked this question. And as I have learned, commenting about white presidential candidates attending segregated schools is a great way to get a bunch of white people to observe “So what? They couldn’t control where they went to school.”
The latter is true, so please save your energy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. I’ll get to that later.
But first, to test Sanders’ claim that his high school class was made up of “a lot more than one” black student. Bernie Sanders graduated Brooklyn’s James Madison High School in 1959, and a review of his 1959 yearbook shows that there were three black students in his graduating class, all of them young women. The yearbook only featured individual photos of seniors, but there were two other black students pictured elsewhere in the yearbook who were not part of Sanders’ graduating class.
Sanders’ revelation didn’t create so much as a blip, and it probably never will because we live in a media culture that’s dominated by an impulse for collective white self-forgiveness, and for panic at anything more complicated that an orange ignoramus calling Mexicans “rapists” or praising Nazis as “very fine people.”
It’s a culture that immediately reacts to a story like this by asking “So what? They couldn’t control where they went to school,” as if that’s the important thing about school segregation, the degree to which it can fairly damage white politicians. That’s not how I see it. I see it as an opportunity to explore the poorly-understood pain of this stain, and the character of those who gained from it.
There are, as we’ve learned this election cycle, varying types and degrees of segregation. In Sanders’ case, black students were permitted in his high school, but mandatory integration would not occur for several years after Sanders graduated. His school is a perfect example of the persistence of racism.
In 1975, ten years after black students began busing to James Madison High School, The New York Times did a shocking look back at how that was working out. A racially-motivated incidence of violence at the school in 1973 prompted an investigation into the school, which The Times said found that the unrest was “‘virtually predictable’ and stemmed from Madison’s nearly total failure to assimilate the black students into the life of the school. For 10 years, black children had been making the long trek out of the Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn —some taking subway and bus trips that lasted more than an hour—only to be treated when they arrived as unwanted outsiders.”
The article lays out a painful journey for black students, who were put on a separate and unequal educational track that included assigned reading of books like “Black Pimps” and “My Daddy Was a Numbers Runner.”
It also included a pretty embarrassing quote from a then-Assemblyman named Chuck Schumer, who was also a Madison alum:
“I looked at the black kids with the same regard as the whites in the business and commercial course,” says Charles Schumer. a Madison graduate who was elected the district’s State Assemblyman last fall, his first year out of law school. “There was no animosity or anything. They were just different; they were not the kinds of kids who were friends.”
Schumer would likely cringe at that quote today, but the impulse among liberals and the media would surely be to forgive it as a product of the times, the same impulse that leads them to ignore the benefits whites like Schumer and Sanders derived from that system.
But the Times article goes on to detail those benefits in canny and uncomfortable detail by contrasting the experience of Schumer’s younger brother Robert Schumer, who was a 17 year–old honors English student at the time, and a black student named Ernest Drew, who got to read “Black Pimps.”
When Bernie attended the school, it had a reputation for academic excellence and virtually no black students, but even after ten years of “integration,” black students were no better off and white students like Robert Schumer still had a significant leg up.
The Sanders campaign declined to comment for this article or provide any background, but there are many clues in Bernie’s life story and political record as to how this experience shaped him. Immediately after high school, he was an activist against segregation in Chicago, attended the 1963 March on Washington, and was active with the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE).
In political life, Sanders has had a consistent message of urging class unity over racial division, which led to mutual endorsements between Bernie and Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. People roll their eyes about the Jackson endorsements, but that was a big deal and a courageous move at the time, one that earned him a slap in the face from one constituent.
In the present day, Bernie has had trouble gaining traction with black voters, partially due to his demonstrated difficulty at taking criticism, and mostly because his class-centered politics have aged past their usefulness with marginalized people and their allies. Sanders derides “identity politics” — a term that many of us see as a slur against civil rights issues — and centers the concerns of white voters.
So while he still checks the “correct” boxes on issues of concern to these communities, his overall philosophy is an inversion of what Jesse Jackson’s was in the 80s and Dr. Martin Luther King’s was before that. They asked white people not to allow their own racism to be an obstacle to class unity, while Sanders — with his constant invocation of “identity politics” — appears to see concerns over racism as the obstacle to unity. That’s even playing out today with the Sanders campaign’s embrace of an endorsement from a man who compared black people to apes.
Whether you think he’s right or wrong — and I think he’s wrong — Bernie demonstrably cares about these issues, and believes that suborning “identity politics” to class unity is a means to remedy them. His answer to Ellis’ question at that education forum shows he learned the lesson of James Madison High School.
But it would be a valuable thing for voters — particularly the ones he’s having trouble attracting — to hear directly from him about what it was like to go to a school with so few black students, what he observed then, and how he grapples with the educational benefit he derived. Unfortunately, he’s unlikely to be asked, but there’s nothing stopping him from spending a town hall or two on the issue.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s high school experience was markedly different from both of his top rivals. When Biden, the son of a car salesman, moved to Delaware from Scranton, Pennsylvania, his family lived in a house across the street from the private Catholic school Archmere Academy, and Biden dreamt of one day attending the school.
When Biden eventually got accepted to Archmere, his family couldn’t afford the tuition, so he earned his keep as a maintenance man in the summer, tending gardens, painting fences, and washing windows.
They were both members of the football team, and Biden was demonstrably aware of that. In the early 80s, he told the story of a local restaurant refusing to serve Hutchins because he was black:
For its first 13 years, the Charcoal Pit — like many other restaurants — did not serve black customers.
“That’s the only negative memory I have,” Biden said. “I organized a civil rights boycott because they wouldn’t serve black kids. One of our football players was black, and we went there and they said they wouldn’t serve him. And I said to the others. ‘Hey, we can’t go in there.’ So we all left. “It was very brief and not nasty. My clear intent was to boycott. I recall shortly after that they started serving black people.”
Several years later, Hutchins was asked about the incident, and said that in that specific case, the other players weren’t aware he was refused service, a quote that was picked up by a national media focused on a raft of negative stories at the time.
But Hutchins also said that there were other similar incidents that he did recall. He told the paper that “There were a number of these kinds of incidents and it is clear to me Sen. Biden could be referring to any one and be perfectly accurate.”
Biden speaks frequently — over the years and at current campaign events — about his experiences with race as a child and a teenager, about moving from mostly-white Scranton to much more diverse Delaware, and about seeking a job at a black public pool while he was in high school.
That experience made a viral superstar out of William L. “CornPop” Morris earlier this year when a skeptical Michael Harriot wrote a hilarious Twitter thread casting doubt on the veracity of Biden’s story about facing down the young man in the parking lot of the pool. His thread went viral, and the video I dug up of Biden telling the story went viral as well.
Corn Pop — may he rest in peace — turned out to be real, and there turned out to be CVS-length receipts verifying Biden’s account. The story itself — in which Biden earns the respect of Corn Pop and his gang in a Dangerous Minds-esque made-for-Hollywood confrontation — was polarizing, especially among young people with a limited grasp of the time period. But it meant a lot to the people in the community Biden came from.
That story helps to demonstrate how Biden, more than any other candidate remaining in this race, has explicitly and consistently spoken about how his early experiences with black people have animated and driven his entire political career.
It’s a career that, especially on race issues, has been under close scrutiny during this election. He’s taken some criticism that was well-deserved, like the reprehensible remarks he made about busing in the 1970s. They read more disgusting now than they would have then, but regardless of Biden’s intent, those comments put wind in the sails of racists, and hurt for anyone else to hear.
However, the issue of busing is an effective lens through which to view the political trajectories of all three of the current frontrunners. People today forget, or never knew, just how racist America was for the first several decades of Biden’s career, and it was a theme of his in those decades to carefully choose civil rights battles to avoid stoking resentment in white people who might otherwise be allies.
This was true of busing, about which he said “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school. You’re going to fill them with hatred.”
But to some degree, this has been the mainstream Democratic Party project in post-Southern Strategy America, to fight a rear-guard action against racism, making just enough progress to stay under the radar of white resentment, while adopting positions that kept them politically palatable.
This is part of Biden’s defense of the crime bill, that he got some good things in there, that he fought against some things that could’ve been worse. But he also points out that many black leaders supported that bill as well, because crime was really messed up then.
There are fair criticisms to be made of all the Democratic Party’s compromises and failures and outright betrayals over the years, but modern voters tend not to temper those criticisms by asking how well things would have gone if the Democrats were being constantly wiped out for being weak on crime or too welfare-y. Yes, maybe we needed better Democrats, but we definitely needed better white people.
When Senator Kamala Harris confronted Biden about segregation at the debate, an affronted veep stuck to his guns, pointing out the distinction he’d made in his positions between de facto and de jure segregation, and that there were lots of black people who hated busing — as illustrated by that 1975 profile of Madison High — but he should have recognized how the words he used and the alliances he formed would feel to someone like her.
But Biden — and many Democrats in his wing of the party — have shed their timidity about fighting for racial and social justice, thanks in large part to the presidency of Barack Obama. His election opened up possibilities and empowered people to push for more progress, even as Republican opposition to him rallied tens of millions — the coalition that elected him twice and delivered Hillary Clinton a popular vote victory — to the right side.
And it was Obama who perhaps best summed up why it is that Joe Biden enjoys such overwhelming support among black voters, warts and all. At a 2007 Democratic debate, Biden was asked to explain a series of infamous racial gaffes, and when he’d finished his answer, then-Senator Obama volunteered his own assessment of Biden.
“I have absolutely no doubt as to what’s in his heart, and the commitment he has made to racial equality in this country,” Obama said.
“I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America,” he added.
“I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America.” – then-Senator Barack Obama during 2007 primary debate, when he was running against Joe Biden. pic.twitter.com/nCmh2X4Fg9
— Tommy X-TrumpIsARacist-opher (@tommyxtopher) December 31, 2019
If black voters and their allies know what’s in Joe Biden’s heart, they just as surely see what’s in Bernie Sanders’ heart. They see someone who has followed the reverse of the Biden arc, going from pushing hard for equality in the face of unyielding resistance to deemphasizing race and other “identity politics” in favor of class unity, explicitly to avoid alienating resentful white voters who might otherwise become allies.
Then there’s Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who attended a high school in Oklahoma City that didn’t admit black students, and transferred black children who resided in the district to other schools. She earned a full scholarship at Northwest Classen High School while black students were denied the opportunity to attend what was regarded as the best school in the state.
And Warren tells the story of how her mother took a minimum wage job in order to keep the family in their home at every single rally, but without mentioning that it was specifically to keep her in that school, and without mentioning that she attended a segregated school.
In fact, she has never publicly commented on the fact that black students were prevented from attending her high school. Not a syllable. Granted, it would be a tall order to ask any candidate in a diverse party like ours to find the vocabulary to discuss something so wrenching, but it would also be an opportunity to assuage skepticism about the depth of her commitment to a fight from which she was completely absent for most of her life, and on the wrong side of for more than half of it.
That’s something for Warren and her supporters to wrestle with, but one reason she’s been able to avoid talking about it is that she is never asked about it. Aside from the handful of articles I’ve written on the subject, it has only ever even been reported three times, by the same reporter, years apart.
That’s because the media is white first, and liberal second, and white people don’t know how to talk about their own racism or privilege without panicking, so they agree to the self-forgiveness of “the times.”
And this doesn’t seem to apply only to Democrats. I tried like hell to find out if Donald Trump went to high school with any black students, but finally had to call his school, the New York Military Academy, to find out. An official at the school said they admitted their first black student in 1967.
It’s the year of our lord 2020, and between the current president and his three likeliest successors, they graduated high school with a grand total of four black students.
While Biden and Sanders have talked about their early lives with respect to race — and Warren has not — none of them has been asked about the segregated schools they attended, or how they feel about the advantages they derived from them, or what it meant to be deprived of diverse classmates, or how they grapple with the opportunities that were denied others. It’s time the media cared enough to ask.
Watch the clip above via MSNBC.
The Biden, Sanders, and Warren campaigns did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.