CHICAGO — An African-American singer led the national anthem at Bernie Sanders's campaign kickoff here Sunday, while speakers of color offered testimonials to the Vermont senator's civil rights activism.
In his speech, Sanders recalled his efforts to desegregate housing as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and read a list of names of young black men killed in police shootings, including Laquan McDonald, whose death at the hands of a Chicago police officer in 2014 sparked outrage and protests across the city.
Sanders had a problem with black voters in the 2016 Democratic primary, losing them by a whopping 50 percentage point margin to the party's eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton. In words and deeds, Sanders is signaling his intent to make up ground in that community in 2020 — but must do so in a large and diverse field of primary competitors, and in a political environment under the Trump presidency that has made racial issues more fraught and divisive than ever.
"Bernie's always stumbled on issues of race and his use of class as a catch-all gives the impression that he's either unable or unwilling to address the specific concerns of African-Americans or he's trying to avoid what he feels is identity politics," said Basil Smikle, a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.
Sanders seemed to reinforce that tendency in one of his first interviews after announcing his decision to enter the 2020 Democratic field last month.
"We have got to look at candidates not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or gender and not by their age," he told Vermont Public Radio. "I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society that looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for."
Since then, he's appeared to ramp up efforts to address the unique challenges facing black Americans that critics complained were missing the last time around. Black voters are approximately 4 in 10 Democratic primary voters, and competition for their support is already fierce.
In a field of contenders that includes black and Latino candidates and five women, one of whom — Kamala Harris — is African-American, Sanders has taken other steps to diversify his campaign effort this time. Aides acknowledge his 2016 team was too white and male. Adding more people of color and more women became a key effort after former aides were accused of sexual harassment and abuse during the 2016 contest.
In his Chicago speech, Sanders seemed to acknowledge that his once colorblind message of class-based income inequality had fallen short with African-American voters.
"Our campaign is about fundamentally ending the disparity of wealth and power in this country," Sanders told the Chicago crowd. "But as we do that, we must speak out against the disparity within the disparity."
He noted that the average black family has one-tenth the wealth of the average white family, and cited persistent discrimination against African-Americans in housing, health care and financial services.
"Have we made progress in civil rights in this country since the early 1960s when I lived here? No question about it. Do we still have a long way to go to end the institutional racism which permeates almost every aspect of our society? Absolutely," he said.
Earlier Sunday, Sanders spoke in Selma, Alabama at the commemoration of the 1963 Bloody Sunday protests, where African-Americans were beaten by police as they marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge. He acknowledged Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who was brutalized and almost died during the protest, and praised the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the African-American civil rights activist whom Sanders supported for president in 1988.
Still, Smikle said, Sanders has considerable work to do.
"Sanders has to embrace an important nuance: Some black voters will buy into his platform but the community isn't monolithic, and Sanders must address the aspirations of a very diverse black electorate."