Marc Nozell / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Bernie Sanders has a Latino problem no one is talking about

It's Black Lives Matter all over again.


Chris Tognotti

Internet Culture

Published Nov 11, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 4:17 pm CDT

If there’s one thing Bernie Sanders’ campaign knows, it’s that the charismatic Vermont Senator has a long way to go with minority voters. Sanders is distantly trailing frontrunner Hillary Clinton among Latinos and Black voters: A CNN/ORC poll from mid-October showed Sanders’ at four percent among Black Democrats in the key primary state of South Carolina. And in Nevada, one of his campaign’s first major events specifically directed at Latino voters reportedly didn’t go that well.

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About 2,000 people showed up to Sanders’ Las Vegas rally on Sunday night, an event that was complete with a 10-piece mariachi band. During his address to the crowd, Bernie Sanders emphasized his family’s immigrant background. But despite being intended as a high-profile launching pad for Sanders’ Latino outreach in the state, it still drew a predominantly white audience. Sanders can’t compete without winning over new, diverse voters, and he can’t do that unless they want to hear to what he has to say.

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If Bernie Sanders historic issues with Black voters is well-documented, his campaign’s Latino problem will only further sink him. To connect with Latino voters, he needs to disprove criticisms of his campaign’s perceived colorblindness by showing that he can speak to the unique issues that Latinos face with the same gravitas that he shows when addressing the needs of working-class families and income inequality. Early in the race, he surged into second-place, buoyed by passionate interest in his campaign on corners of the Internet like Reddit, but recently, that surge has stalled out.

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If Bernie Sanders historic issues with Black voters is well-documented, his campaign’s Latino problem will only further sink him.

It’s clear that he really believes that economic justice is the most crucial, vital issue of its time, but it can sometimes neglects the specific concerns of marginalized people. Blasting Donald Trump’s “old-fashioned racism” is one thing, and rolling out a strongly progressive pledge on immigration is even better. But making it clear that you’re willing to lay your political life on the line for a community’s given cause is much harder to do, and that’s the level of commitment issues like racism, deportation, and state-sponsored violence demand.

If this sounds familiar, you might recall his previous encounters with Black Lives Matter. He was targeted by a protest at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix earlier this year, directed both at the progressive movement overall and at the myopic nature of Sanders’ candidacy. The interruption ultimately led Sanders to abandon his speech and bail out on already scheduled meetings with prominent Black figures. 

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And even though Sanders has taken some considerable strides to try to rectify the situation—he released a strong racial justice platform and has frequently cited the story of Sandra Bland on the campaign trail—there are signs that despite his much-lauded history as a civil rights activist, he still doesn’t get it.

Back in August, Sanders needlessly retracted an apology his campaign had extended to Black Lives Matter. During an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, he insisted that there was no need to apologize: “This was sent out without my knowledge.” And recently, Sanders defaulted back to his pre-BLM attitude during his dialogue with Rachel Maddow at MSNBC’s Democratic Candidates Forum last week. When Maddow asked him if he had enough real world experience with the issues close to Black voters to appeal to them, Sanders stuck to the old, tired script.

I believe I can, for a few reasons. Number one, in terms of my history. If you check out my record, you will find that there are very few members of the Congress who have a stronger record on civil rights than Bernie Sanders have. Way back when when I was a little bit younger, I was involved in civil rights demonstrations. And I was there with Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. King, in the March on Washington. … But more importantly, I think I have the economic and social justice agenda now, that once we get the word out, will in fact resonate with the black community.

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He went on to cite fighting for Medicaid expansion, a $15 minimum wage, a single-payer health care system, and taxing big banks. He added a point about black unemployment at the end, but he continued to ignore systemic racism—at least outside of his usual economic justice message. 

If Sanders is the Occupy Wall Street candidate, the Washington Post’s Jannell Ross argues that moments like the Maddow interview show that he continues to illustrate that movement’s worst tendencies: “Occupy focused on class struggle, while economic racism… was barely acknowledged or outright ignored. Across the country, people of color were present in Occupy, but a study of the movement’s racial representation found that African Americans made up just 1.6 percent of its participants.”

But Bernie Sanders’ embrace of Scandinavian politics—including their ignorance of racial issues—isn’t the only problem with his voter outreach. To make Latinos and Black folks feel included, he has to stand up to his own supporters.

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The Black Lives Matter protests—and subsequent criticism of his campaign on social media—have created animosity between his followers and people of color who have questioned his policies.

The Black Lives Matter protests—and subsequent criticism of his campaign on social media—have created animosity between his followers and people of color who have questioned his policies. White Sanders supporters have accused black activists of whining, being rude, and wanting Sanders to pander to them, and in the Washington Post, Terrell Jermaine Starr pointed out that this illustrates the long-simmering tension between white liberals and people of color.

“The revolting tone of the backlash to critiques of Sanders’s record on racial issues is the digital manifestation of a historical divide between black Americans and white progressives,” Starr wrote. “From the labor movement of the post-industrial era to the feminist movement of the 1960s, people of color long have been sidelined and patronized when they try to exercise their voices in progressives spaces that claim to welcome them.”

Sanders’ overzealous Twitter supporters should also raise concerns over how ambivalence to his campaign from Latino voters might be received, especially as Latinos have long supported Hillary Clinton, favoring her over Barack Obama by a 2 to 1 ratio during her 2008 campaign. While Clinton has a strong base in the Latino community, the L.A. Times’ Evan Halper points outs that Sanders’ campaign and its message has long been focused on key states like Iowa and New Hampshire—“where voters are overwhelmingly white.”

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If these factors make it all too likely that we’ll see a repeat of the tensions between BLM and white Sanders supporters—especially if Latinos protest his campaign—Sanders’ own myopic rhetoric is what paved the way for it. He has nobody to blame but himself.

Chris Tognotti is a writer at Bustle and a contributor to the Daily Dot. Chris tweets at @ctognotti

Photo via Marc Nozell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Nov 11, 2015, 4:07 pm CST