Bernie Sanders was asked to address his racial blind spots during the Democratic debate Sunday. His response was more revealing than he may have realized.
“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto," Sanders said. "You don’t know what it’s like to be poor."
Sanders implied that the black experience in America is limited to living in ghettos among other low-income, poverty-stricken homes. This is inaccurate and paints a damaging narrative that not only misidentifies and generalizes black people but also diminishes the experiences of white and immigrant Americans who do face such realities.
Sanders missed four major points:
- There are plenty of black people who aren't poor.
- There are plenty of black people who don't live in ghettos.
- There are plenty of white people who are poor.
- There are plenty of white people who live in ghettos.
The poverty rate among black households is 26 percent -- but that number, which is disproportionately high and stands as the largest among any other racial or ethnic group, is not reflective of all African-Americans. Not even most.
With reductive and offensive comments about street corners and ghettos, Sanders is ignoring the experiences of basically three-quarters of the nation's African-Americans. No wonder they've so far been more likely to break for Hillary Clinton. Though she has her own problems with black voters -- who blame her in part for criminal justice and welfare reform in the 1990s that has been devastating for many African-Americans -- Clinton's positions today seem to have come to a more nuanced understanding.
At this point we must note that for all their flaws, at least these two candidates are actually talking issues that affect people of color. But the thing is: Sanders tends to trace most problems back to income inequality. And racial issues are no exception.
Systemic racial issues are certainly impacted -- if not, exacerbated -- by economic inequality. However, Sanders, who often sees the two issues as inextricably linked, has constantly touted proposals to address income inequality as a solution to directly combating racism when that's simply not enough.
This stance is almost as reductive as the old conservative argument that if poor black people simply work harder they can move beyond racial issues.
Sanders' immigrant background, according to his campaign, enables him to understand the role poverty plays.
"He clearly understands poverty is not reserved to any one race or ethnic group, a Sanders campaign spokesperson said in a statement emailed to The Huffington Post. "Obviously he knows there are prosperous people in America that are Black, White, Asian American, Latino, Hispanic, Native American and otherwise."
"He also knows we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but there are far too many people of all races living in poverty while the top one percent keeps getting richer and richer," the statement continued.
It often seems, however, like Sanders has the equation backwards -- so much of what drives income and wealth inequality among blacks is racism. Racist housing policies for much of the twentieth century, for example, helped keep many black Americans out of the middle-class, which Sanders and Clinton both now speak passionately of saving.
Tackling racism not only requires taking a hard stance against the policies that perpetuate it -- it also requires a solid understanding on what it means to be black in America, something Sanders has not made totally clear he understands.
This blind spot was on full view Sunday night when Sanders answered a question about urban blight in Detroit. He blamed the city's decline on trade policy, failing to note that systemic racism helped fuel that city's tragic decline.
Being black in America is an experience that encompasses much more than location and income. It means to celebrate the beauty among those who identify with blackness and a community rich in culture and melanin.
But being black in America also means collectively fighting against the hate it breeds among others and treating racial injustice as its own crucial standalone issue -- something Black Lives Matter activists have constantly amplified.
But time and again, Sanders has failed to address the two issues separately. During the debate last month, Sanders asserted that race relations in America would improve under his leadership because of his focus on disparities in employment.
But more jobs won't solve racism. Racial bias overlays all layers of our society, from the top down. You can see it in the challenges faced by the country's most successful black businessmen and women or actors and directors.
Still, Sanders portrays the problems of black people as the problems of poor people and those entangled in the criminal justice system. When asked how he will improve race relations in the U.S., he says that better policing, criminal justice reform and jobs are the solution:
“What we will do is say, instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, we are going to create millions of jobs for low-income kids so they’re not hanging out on street corners,” Sanders said in a recent debate.
Meanwhile, words and phrases like "ghettos" and "hanging out on street corners" can be coded language that carry much weight when used against those unfairly associated with such terms.
It simply goes to show Sanders' appeal to African-Americans can be less favorable at times because his own view of black voters is often so limiting.
Sanders may have the best intentions but his comments reflect a certain level of ignorance on his part for failing to fairly identify or describe the core group of voters he has worked so hard to court. Sanders must choose his words carefully, especially when describing the voters he so aggressively seeks -- and that is crucial now more than ever.