Bernie Sanders Emphasizes Racial Issues During South Carolina Town Hall

The senator has struggled to narrow Hillary Clinton's lead among African Americans.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has long struggled in his attempts to make racial injustice a focus of his class-oriented presidential campaign -- and to earn the support of African-American voters who continue to prefer Hillary Clinton.

The Vermont progressive doubled down on his efforts to reassure those voters of his commitment to civil rights in CNN’s Democratic town hall in South Carolina on Tuesday night. The discussion came ahead of a party primary on Saturday in the state, where African Americans make up half of the electorate.

One of Sanders' first questions was from Vidual Futch, a young African-American man in the audience who asked about how Sanders’ plan for free public college tuition would affect historically black colleges and universities, many of which are private. The question echoed a criticism of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the most prominent Democrat in South Carolina and a Hillary Clinton backer, who recently charged that Sanders’ public college plan would decimate historically black colleges.

In response, Sanders promised to dramatically increase funding for the universities.

“We must sustain and strengthen the historically black colleges and universities who do a phenomenal job today educating a significant number of African Americans,” Sanders said. “You have my word that we will not only sustain, we will substantially increase funding for historically black colleges and universities.”

Later in the town hall, when Sanders was asked to name his favorite Supreme Court justice, he named Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice and a liberal icon.

Sanders also implied that Senate Republicans are guilty of racism for refusing to even give hearings for President Barack Obama’s potential nominee to replace the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia (a charge that many black elected officials have also leveled).

But what you are seeing today in this Supreme Court situation is nothing more than the continuous and unprecedented obstructionism that President Obama has gone through Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

He also emphasized that he has been an ally of the president in previous fights against congressional Republicans, something Hillary Clinton’s campaign has tried to sow doubt about.

“We are going to have to fight through that. I’ve been at the president’s side, time and time again,” Sanders said. “But what you are seeing today in this Supreme Court situation is nothing more than the continuous and unprecedented obstructionism that President Obama has gone through.”

Sanders even likened congressional Republican obstruction to the racism of the “birther” movement, which claims Obama was not born in the United States.

“This is on top of this birther issue, which we heard from Donald Trump and others -- a racist effort to try to delegitimize the president of the United States,” Sander said.

Sanders then repeated a joke he has made in the past, wondering why he, the son of a Polish immigrant, has not been subjected to the same questions as Obama about the legality of him becoming president.

“Nobody has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it is the color of my skin,” Sanders deadpanned, drawing applause. “I don’t know.”

But Sanders refused to say definitively whether GOP front-runner Donald Trump is himself guilty of racism for publicly questioning where Obama was born -- and indeed funding a very public campaign to investigate his status.

“Look, I don’t want to -- I am not a psychoanalyst,” Sanders mused. “And boy, would psychoanalysts have an interesting time with Donald Trump!”

He conceded that even if Trump himself is not guilty of racism, elements of the Republican Party involved in the birther movement alongside him certainly are.

“Now, I am not going to speak to Trump, but do I think that at least some part of that Republican base, there is race involved in that? Absolutely,” Sanders concluded.