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Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke to members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Saturday.  (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Bernie Sanders: Strong Words on Structural Racism and Inequality

The stakes were high for the speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to the national gathering of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Saturday night. Sanders’ speech to the civil rights organization, whose first president was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., came just one week after Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a Netroots Nation event in Phoenix, Arizona, featuring Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, to demand that candidates address police brutality against African American communities, and put racial justice at the center of their campaigns.


If Sanders responded badly to demands of the Black Lives Matter activists, almost immediately afterward he showed an understanding of and willingness to address their concerns with the same forcefulness he brings to populist economic issues. After Phoenix, Sander was the first candidate to speak out against the arrest of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Waller County, Texas, earlier this month. In a statement released last Tuesday, Sanders denounced the “totally outrageous police behavior” recorded in the video of Bland’s arrest, and cited it as evidence of “why we need real police reform.”


On Wednesday, in an interview on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” Sanders called the video of Bland’s arrest, “dreadful and painful,” and spoke out on sentencing reforms, and the need for police reform.

His speech to the SCLC showed that Sanders not only heard the message of Black Lives Matter, but took it to heart, and is making it central to his campaign. Indeed Sanders could have been speaking directly to the Black Lives Matter movement when he praised SCLC for understanding, “that real change takes place when millions of people stand up and say ‘enough is enough,’ and when we create a political revolution from the ground up.” Saying, “enough is enough,” and “creating a political revolution from the ground up” is what Black Lives Matter activists are doing.


Rather than dwell on his past civil rights work, which many in the room likely already knew, Sanders turned to “the need to simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists in this country, while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is making the very rich much richer while everyone else — especially the African-American community and working-class whites — are becoming poorer.”


After running through a litany of statistics on racial disparity, Sanders addressed the intertwined realities of structural racism and economic inequality in stronger terms than any 2016 presidential candidate to date.


Too many African-Americans today are simultaneously having to deal the crisis of racial justice while coping with the effects of poverty and economic deprivation, such as drugs, crime, and despair.

… As Martin Luther King, Jr., said; Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.


Sanders then “said their names,” calling out the names of victims of police violence — Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice — to represent the names, faces, and real lives behind those statistics.


Sanders linked police violence against individuals to “the violence of economic deprivation” visited upon the same communities of color where police violence is all to common. “Communities of color also face the violence of economic deprivation. Let’s be frank: neighborhoods like those in west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray resided, suffer the most.”


Sanders comments echoed a central point in the 12-point platform of the Populism 2015 conference earlier this year:


Eliminate Institutionalized Racism to Open Opportunity to All.

In a society of increasing diversity, ending systemic racial disparities is vital to building economic prosperity. This begins with comprehensive immigration reform, expanded voting rights and an end to mass incarceration and the systematic criminalization of people of color.


Going forward, progressive candidates and elected officials will be challenged to place the elimination of structural racism at the center of their campaigns and agendas. Progressive organizations and movements must embrace the challenge of making sure candidates and leaders prioritize both structural racism and economic inequality. Sander’s speech to the SCLC, and his relatively fast self-correction following Netroots Nation, show what can happen when both progressive movements and candidates rise to those challenges.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Terrance Heath

Terrance Heath

Terrance Heath works at The Solidarity Center, a non-profit organization that works with unions, NGOs and community groups worldwide to advance worker rights and promote broad-based, sustainable economic development. He is the former Online Producer at Campaign for America's Future.

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