Reaching out to black voters, Sanders reframes but doesn’t change his central argument in race

Published 9:38 am Wednesday, November 25, 2015

ATLANTA — Bernie Sanders acknowledged that he needs more support from black voters to have any chance of defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And, also stating the obvious, Sanders is a longtime politician from Vermont, where the population is 95 percent white. So he’s not exactly spent much time before now campaigning among African-Americans.

The result is a political tightrope for a 74-year-old senator who has assembled a national following as a self-styled “democratic socialist” calling for a “political revolution” that wrests control of the U.S. government from “the billionaire class” comprising the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations.

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Facing that reality, Sanders has opted not to change his central argument, but to reframe it and force it in front of voters he’s never before needed to win an election.

“Our job is to end institutional racism,” he said on Monday at a raucous rally in downtown Atlanta. “But it is also to create an economy that makes sure our kids are able to get decent jobs and a decent education. I see those two issues as absolutely overlapping.”

The Fox Theatre event, which drew about 5,000 supporters, concluded a four-day stretch that highlighted Sanders’ outreach to black voters. On Friday, he took questions in front of a bipartisan group of black civic and business leaders gathered in South Carolina, where he’s also airing a radio ad in which he bemoans “institutional racism,” calls for ending racial profiling and mass incarceration and highlights his work in the civil rights movement as a college student.

That biographical emphasis comes after months of Sanders’ insisting that he didn’t want “to brag” about his past. “It’s much more important for me to tell people what I will do as president and how it affects them,” he told The Associated Press in September.

He spoke Sunday in black churches. In Atlanta, he met privately with one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children and paid his respects at the slain civil rights leader’s crypt. He was introduced by rapper Killer Mike, who had earlier taken the senator to eat at a well-known restaurant near Atlanta University Center, the cluster of historically black colleges and universities. Sanders’ campaign staff boasted that he was “the first white elected-official” ever to visit Busy Bee Cafe.

He’s begun highlighting endorsements from black elected-officials, even as his list is dwarfed by Clinton’s list of backers from Congress, legislative leaders and mayors across the region.