Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) promised to do everything in his power to combat racial injustice and inequity during a televised CNN town hall on Monday night, seeking to quiet criticism that his focus on class comes at the expense of fighting racism.
In one of the final questions of the evening, Noel Isama, a public policy analyst in the live Washington audience, asked Sanders what he would do to address the “deep sense of mistrust” of him by some within the African-American community.
Isama said that some African-Americans think Sanders did not do enough to support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and thereby “contributed” to President Donald Trump’s election. He also said that some people feel Sanders is “at times racially insensitive” and, because of his “background,” doesn’t “reflect their experience.”
Sanders defended his record of support for Clinton, noting that he held upwards of 35 campaign rallies on her behalf.
Addressing the second point, he observed that he won a majority of young African-American votes in the 2016 primary ― an assertion supported by exit polling ― and that he currently enjoys high popularity among black voters.
Then Sanders delivered what may be his most articulate and impassioned denunciation of systemic racial inequality in an off-the-cuff setting.
He identified racial disparities as features of American life that cannot be explained purely through the same economic forces that apply to the entire population.
“Maybe I haven’t been as strong on this issue as I should be,” he conceded, in an apparent reference to his rhetoric. “I talk about the fact that we have a nation of massive inequality ― and I believe that. I think that’s the most important issue we can talk about. But within that inequality, we have another inequality, and that is racial disparity.”
He enumerated various ways in which racial inequities persist at all levels of the American economy, including the massive wealth disparity between black and white families, black women’s higher infant mortality rate and the difficulty that some black businesspeople have in obtaining loans.
“I will work as hard as I can, No. 1, to have a Cabinet that reflects what America is, and No. 2, to do everything that I can in every way to end all forms of racism in this country,” he concluded.
As if to test his commitment to that answer, the next questioner, nonprofit worker Chioma Iwuoha, asked Sanders whether he supported reparations for the descendants of black slaves in the United States.
Without addressing the question directly, Sanders said he supported Democratic House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s “10-20-30” legislation ensuring that a disproportionate share of federal redevelopment funds go to high-poverty communities, including many urban and rural black communities.
“We’re going to do everything we can to put resources into distressed communities and improve lives for those people who have been hurt from the legacy of slavery,” he said.
CNN host Wolf Blitzer pressed Sanders, who declared his opposition to reparations in the 2016 election cycle, to clarify his stance on reparations, which are traditionally understood as direct payments or others forms of financial redress to descendants of slaves.
During an extended back and forth with Sanders, Blitzer argued that Democratic presidential rivals Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro professed their support for the policy.
Sanders shot back: “What does that mean?”
Blitzer insisted that they were clear about the matter, but in fact, neither has specified their exact intention.
In an interview on MSNBC earlier Monday, Castro stepped closer to backing the conventional understanding of reparations, arguing that if we compensate those whose property we take, we should certainly “consider” compensating the descendants of slaves in a similar form.
The CNN host read Warren’s statement to The Washington Post to Sanders, in which she said there needed to be “systemic, structural changes” to aid black families disadvantaged by slavery and generations of discrimination. Sanders responded that he agreed with Warren.
But when Blitzer pressed Sanders on whether that meant reparations, Sanders repeated himself.
“Read what she said: She means, I think ― I don’t want to put words into her mouth ― what I said,” he responded.
While Blitzer was not satisfied, the diverse crowd applauded his words.
Sometimes you have unintended consequences when a powerful nation goes in and tells people who their government will be. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Sanders suffered from his lack of support among African-American voters older than 30 in the 2016 election, particularly in Southern states, where they make up an outsized share of the Democratic primary electorate.
In just six days since he has launched his presidential campaign, Sanders has made strides to reverse this effect, largely by surrounding himself with a racially diverse circle of senior aides and advisers.
In a follow-up email exchange with HuffPost, Noel Isama, who works for the transparency-focused Sunlight Foundation, declined to state his opinion of Sanders’ response to his question for professional reasons.
He did explain that he asked the question because he found the disdain for Sanders among black peers “frustrating,” given Sanders’ policy record.
“I looked at my question as a way for Bernie to address those issues directly,” Isama wrote. “I think he did.”
By and large, the town hall was an opportunity for Sanders to reprise long-standing campaign-trail themes of, among other things, curbing income inequality, enacting “Medicare for All” and universal preschool, and forcing pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices.
Sanders’ calls to transform the U.S. energy system to limit the effects of climate change and to finance ambitious plans to expand the welfare state by taxing corporations like Amazon were met with warm applause from the audience. The crowd chanted “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” several times before and after commercial breaks.
Sanders was mostly at ease with the audience, eliciting laughs with one-liners, including a joke that he’d bring a “lie detector” to a debate with Trump.
He also affirmed that he would support the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, regardless of who it would end up being, and vowed to release his tax returns for the past 10 years “soon,” though he declined to specify when.
A rare moment of tension occurred early on in the town hall. American University junior Shadi Nasabzadeh asked why, in the context of an increasingly diverse Democratic Party, she should have confidence in his ability to represent her, “particularly” given his comments to CNN in January that he was not aware of sexual harassment among his 2016 campaign staff because he was a “little busy” running for president.
“Well, I think that quote was a little bit out of context,” Sanders shot back.
(Sanders has subsequently issued less-qualified apologies and met with several of the women who reported being harassed by other staff members or surrogates.)
In his response to Nasabzadeh, though, Sanders initially focused on the diversity component of her question. He detailed his efforts to elect women and people of color to Congress, claiming he was “proud” of the diverse freshman class.
Pressed by Blitzer to address instances of alleged sexual harassment on his 2016 campaign, Sanders expressed his regret, calling it “very painful.”
“It will not happen again,” he added.
He promised to apply the same anti-harassment protocols he implemented on his 2018 Senate re-election campaign to his 2020 presidential bid. The changes include mandatory sexual harassment training for all staff and the appointment of an independent entity to process any harassment claims confidentially.
Nasabzadeh, a registered Democrat in California, told HuffPost in a phone call that she was surprised by Sanders’ abrupt response. Though she was warming to him in the first few minutes of the town hall, his response, which she felt was “defensive” and evasive, she said, prompted her to rule out voting for him in the primary.
“I was a bit taken aback, especially given the caliber of his responses to other questions throughout the evening,” she said.
In addition, the senator, who has worked hard to beef up his foreign policy credentials since his 2016 presidential run, described in greater detail why he is so firmly opposed to the United States intervening militarily in Venezuela.
“I’m old enough to remember the war in Vietnam. And I was as active as I could be trying to keep the United States from going to war in Iraq,” he said. “I am very fearful of the United States continuing to do what it has done in the past.”
After listing a series of Latin American countries whose governments the United States toppled for political reasons, Sanders added, “Sometimes you have unintended consequences when a powerful nation goes in and tells people who their government will be.”
He said he supported providing humanitarian aid to Venezuela and establishing an international process to enable new elections.
Asked by Blitzer why he has declined to dub Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a “dictator,” Sanders said that, although Maduro’s previous election was “undemocratic,” there were still “democratic operations taking place” in the South American nation.
The response drew immediate ridicule from national Republicans intent on demonizing Democrats as socialists.
“At every turn, 2020 Democrats have rushed to embrace Bernie’s socialist policies,” Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest said in an email to reporters. “Do they also agree with these radical positions too?”
This article has been updated with additional details from the town hall and responses from participants.