Given the importance of the African-American vote in the Democratic primary and the questions around whether Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – a self-styled “Democratic socialist” in a state that is 1 percent black – can effectively compete for the black vote, it’s surprising that a recent Ebony magazine interview with Sanders has remained under the radar.
In the interview Sanders fields questions about the Black Lives Matters protests at his early campaign events and the angry reaction of some of his supporters, the fact that some blacks feel taken for granted by the Democratic party, and whether the Obama presidency represents genuine progress for African Americans.
“I’m not crazy about being interrupted by any means, I’ve got to tell you that,” he said when asked about the protesters from the Black Lives Matters movement who interrupted his campaign speeches last year at Netroots Nation in Phoenix and at a rally in Seattle. But he went on to say that he had several subsequent meetings with leaders from the Black Lives Matters movement, “and what I was sensitized to is a little bit more about what is going on in the African-American communities in terms of their relationship to the police. That I did not fully appreciate.”
He went on to tell the story of how a person who now works on his campaign was the victim of an attempted framing by a police officer who threw a bag of marijuana in her car and then tried to charge her for drug possession, and another story told to him by a South Carolina woman who complained that the police in her area threaten and intimidate her brothers.
When the discussion turned to Sandra Bland, the African-American woman who was found dead in a jail cell after being arrested for challenging a belligerent and ultimately indicted officer during a traffic stop, Sanders said, “What I saw on the Sandra Bland video is that I saw a cop just grabbing her, yanking her out of her car and throwing her around, and it was very hard for me to imagine that a white middle-class woman would be treated that way at all. Almost incomprehensible to me.”
Earlier in the interview, Ebony senior editor Jamilah Lemieux – who did the interview wearing a shirt commemorating the historic 1972 presidential candidacy of New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and African American to run for president – asked about the angry responses of some Sanders’ supporters to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Some of them have gone over the edge. I apologize for that,” he said.
“I want you to know that the issues of institutional racism, and criminal justice reform, are major, major issues of my concern, and I understand that the African-American community, which has been so supportive of the Democratic Party, feels that they have not gotten a fair shake. I got it.”
A key reason African Americans have not gotten a fair shake, Sanders said, is, “I think to a large degree, money dictates policy, and you will get a real good hearing if you are prepared to put a couple of million dollars into someone’s super PAC.”
But, he went on to say, African Americans lost more financial than any other demographic group because of the 2008 Wall Street crash, and because of that “it is totally appropriate for the African-American community to make its demands, put them on the table and hold elected leaders accountable.”
A key issue that the Ebony interview does not explore is the controversy, notably elevated by Atlantic magazine writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, about whether Sanders’ class-based economic framing is sufficient to address the racial economic disparities that Sanders acknowledges. But the interview – actually the second he has done with the magazine in the past year – should serve as a marker in his continuing effort to reach out to black voters.