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Why Bernie Sanders doesn't talk about race

A lot of people are very excited about Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign. It's not hard to figure out why: there are a lot of those progressives out there who are very concerned about economic inequality, the rise of the super-rich, the financial industry, and the role of money in American politics.

But there's a reason I say "those progressives" instead of just "progressives": because not everyone in the Democratic base shares those particular passions, or those passions alone. For other progressives — many of them black or Latino — economic inequality is important, but so is racial inequality. They're extremely concerned about racial bias in policing, and about ending mass incarceration. They're concerned about the treatment of unauthorized immigrants, and about protecting voting rights (an issue like campaign finance where progressives are worried the integrity of the political system is at stake — and where the outcome doesn't look good for them).

Bernie Sanders doesn't speak to those concerns. He didn't mention those issues in his campaign launch in May. They're not on the issues page of his website. And his appearance at Netroots Nation in July left many attendees frustrated: Sanders answered questions about racial issues by pivoting back to economic ones.

This isn't an accidental oversight. These simply aren't issues Sanders is passionate about in the way he's passionate about economic injustice. When my colleague Andrew Prokop profiled Sanders last year, he pointed out astutely that Sanders's career has been "laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else." Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality. To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.

Even as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, influenced by the hours he spent in the library stacks reading famous philosophers, (Sanders) became frustrated with his fellow student activists, who were more interested in race or imperialism than the class struggle. They couldn't see that everything they protested, he later said, was rooted in "an economic system in which the rich controls, to a large degree, the political and economic life of the country."

"Bernie is in many ways a 1930s radical as opposed to a 1960s radical," says professor Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont. "The 1930s radicals were all about unions, corporations — basically economic issues rather than cultural ones." Richard Sugarman, an old friend who worked closely with Sanders during his early political career, concurs. "We spent much less time on social issues and much more time on economic issues," he told me. "Bernard always began with the question of, 'What is the economic fairness of the situation?'

That's why his response to events like the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, or in Baltimore this spring — which to other progressives were a reminder of structural racism in the criminal justice system — was to focus on local youth unemployment rates, and call for more young black Americans to get jobs. To Sanders, that's the ultimate solution to the underlying problem. To progressives who think addressing racism is an end in itself, that's a separate issue from getting police to stop killing young black Americans.

So while there's one group of progressives who look at Sanders and see someone who has spent his career voicing their most deeply held beliefs about America, there are others who don't. And they don't have a Bernie Sanders — a decades-long champion — of their own in the race. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb was interested in mass incarceration before it was cool, but also thinks the Democratic Party needs to do more to appeal to the white working class — so it's hard to imagine his campaign becoming the standard-bearer for nonwhite progressive concerns. And while former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has been trying to make a name for himself by running to Hillary Clinton's left on immigration, the protests over the killing of Freddie Gray and police behavior in Baltimore have reminded America of the role O'Malley played as mayor of Baltimore in creating the system that's so dysfunctional today.

But Sanders has only been able to build a career on talking about his own political principles, and assuming voters will respond, because he's in an unusual position for a Democratic (or Democratic-affiliated) politician. Sanders's Vermont is pretty homogeneous: 94 percent white, 96 percent American-born, relatively well-educated. Sanders has never had to win an election by working to appeal to white, black, and Latino voters all at once — he's won election after election by successfully representing the concerns of a single constituency. Most Democratic politicians at the statewide level don't have that option.

happy Bernie Sanders fan

Woo! (Win McNamee/Getty)

And a presidential candidate whose priority is winning the nomination and the presidency doesn't have that option, either. That's why frontrunner Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate who's spoken out the most about the concerns that animate nonwhite progressives. With early events focused on criminal justice and on immigration, it's clear that Clinton's campaign is trying to reach out to these progressives and tell them Clinton shares their pain.

Of course, unlike Sanders's decades-long record of economic progressivism, Clinton is moving to the left on issues that she hasn't historically been a progressive leader on (to say the least). But she's doing so because she appears to recognize that the party has changed since she was a first lady or a senator, and because she wants to win the nomination and the presidency, she needs to move to meet it. Sanders is running to make the same points he's always made: that the rich are too powerful in America and the government needs to fix it. Clinton is running to win as many votes as possible. She doesn't embody any single progressive passion the way Sanders embodies economic populism — but it looks like she's responding to the progressive concerns Sanders has mostly ignored.