clock menu more-arrow no yes

Bernie Sanders's struggle to connect with black voters, in one awkward moment

 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) greets people at the Brookland Baptist Church on February 21, 2016, in West Columbia, South Carolina.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) greets people at the Brookland Baptist Church on February 21, 2016, in West Columbia, South Carolina.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At a historically black church near the South Carolina state capital, things got awkward for Bernie Sanders.

Sanders delivered his typical stump to nearly 800 churchgoers lined up for a Sunday feast. When he reached his line about criminal justice reform, he expected the rousing round of applause it usually receives. Instead, he got silence.

Here’s how the New York Times’s Yamiche Alcindor captured the moment:

"We have, in America today, a broken criminal justice system," Mr. Sanders said at the microphone, pausing briefly after this line from his stump speech, which is usually met with applause. Here it garnered very little, and the line for the food kept moving. Brookland Baptist Church proved a tough crowd.

It’s unclear why criminal justice reform, a key issue among black communities, failed to draw more excitement from the audience. But the fact that no one whooped and cheered for Sanders is telling of a larger problem he has with black voters.

That problem, in short, is that many black voters think Sanders is the candidate of white youth support. That’s not totally Sanders’s fault – he honed much of his political career in Vermont, where 95 percent of the population is white. But it was made worse by Black Lives Matter activists who protested Sanders rallies through much of the summer and fall, trying to back him into a corner.

His minority support deficit is compounded by the fact that Hillary Clinton maintains long-lasting ties with black communities.

"I just feel like this go-round, it is her time," one woman told the Times. "She has a good connection with the black community, and I do believe we will continue to support her."

Black voters broke for Clinton 3 to 1 in Nevada, and she is projected to continue attracting minority voters in upcoming contests. In particular, seven Southern states — all with heavily black electorates — are set to vote on March 1, a chance for Clinton to pull decisively ahead of Sanders in the delegate count.

In a national poll of black voters conducted by Gallop, 82 percent said they held a favorable view of Clinton, while only 53 percent said the same of Sanders.

What’s worse, even Sanders’s black surrogates don’t seem to be gaining much traction. Ben Jealous, a former NAACP president, introduced Sanders at the same church event. In his remarks, Jealous also conspicuously failed to stir excitement.

"In our community, when they tell us not to dream, we say, ‘Yes, we can.’ And so I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to dream big?" he asked, fishing for an "Amen."

He got just one. The rest of the crowd stayed resolutely silent.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.