On Saturday afternoon, Vermont Senator and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was interrupted at a rally in Seattle by a group of black women. The women took the stage from Senator Sanders and proceeded to accuse him of not doing enough to combat racial inequity and his predominantly white crowd of supporters of white supremacy. This incident prompted Sanders to cancel the rally early. Although the disruption appeared to undermine the Sanders campaign at least initially, it nonetheless sparked a series of events that could help Senator Sanders win the black vote, aiding him in his efforts to win the Democratic nomination in next year’s presidential primaries.
The idea that Sanders is disinterested in racial inequality and focused only on class divisions in the US is not new. Many left-wing publications, such as Salon, have said the same. Even so, Sanders, while far from perfect, is quite possibly the least racist Democratic candidate running for president thus far. In contrast with the current Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State, New York Senator, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, both of whom have said that “All Lives Matter,” (an appropriation of “Black Lives Matter” used mainly by racist whites and well-intentioned white people who are ignorant of racial power dynamics in the US,) or former Virgina Senator Jim Webb’s defense of the Confederate flag and his insistence that the traitors who used it in battle were “honorable,” Sanders’ biggest failure on racial issues has seemingly been his apparent ignorance of and inaction on them.
Since the affair in Seattle, however, Senator Sanders has become more outspoken about addressing racial inequality in America. This is evidenced by his appointment of #BlackLivesMatter activist Symone Sanders as his press secretary and his announcement of a comprehensive plan intended to address various forms of racial inequality in the United States on Sunday. Even though his plan will almost certainly fall far short of eliminating racial injustice, no other candidate in this election cycle has proposed as much to address this inequity. This suggests that Sanders is genuinely interested in combatting such problems, even if he is ignorant about how best to address them.
Despite these efforts, Sanders continues to poll in only second place to Clinton, whose husband, former US President Bill Clinton, was and is a popular figure in American politics, notably among African Americans. His appeal among much of the black community influenced prominent African American writer Toni Morrison to declare him the “first black president” in 1998.
Despite President Clinton’s popularity among members of this demographic, which his wife will inevitably use in her bid for the presidency, there is at least one comment from the former president that Sanders can and should use against the Clintons to increase his appeal among black voters. Following then-Illinois Senator and current US President Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, Bill Clinton, in a seemingly dismissive tone, compared the future president’s primary victory to those of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 in the same state. By comparing Obama’s campaigns to another black man’s, and in particular one whose presidential campaigns did not go especially far, Clinton seemed to demonstrate contempt for black candidates and voters. As a result, his comment, at least in my opinion, should be a matter of concern as to whether the Clintons are truly interested in the well-being of African Americans.
While Bernie Sanders still has a long way to secure the Democratic nomination next year, let alone the White House, the apparent catastrophe that was the Seattle rally may have been a positive turning point in his campaign. The interruption still communicated the important message that too many politicians in the United States neglect the needs of African Americans. Taking this into consideration, Sanders has started to prioritize racial inequality in addition to class inequality in his campaign. This, along with Bill Clinton’s apparently racist remarks about President Obama and Reverend Jackson, could allow him to siphon black votes from Hillary Clinton and grant him a victory in the Democratic primaries.