It’s safe to say that most Black people aren’t all that familiar with Sen. Bernie Sanders. On the surface, he looks like a concerned 74-year old grandfather who has spent most of his political career serving the people of a state that is 95 percent White. But go a little deeper and you will find that there is much more to the man who some believe has what it takes to pulverize the political machine that powers Hillary Clinton.
Sanders grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY. In his 20s, as a recent graduate from the University of Chicago he was arrested at a civil rights demonstration, igniting what would become a lifelong propensity of social activism. He’s been fashioned as the guy who fights for the underdog, supported marriage equality before it became popular to do so, while at the same time remaining an ardent advocate for veterans’ rights.
Even as these details about his past come to light, Sanders knows that he’s fighting an uphill battle to be truly seen and heard. It won’t be easy introducing himself, his plans or his politics to the African American community, especially when his opponent has a familiarity that spans being First Lady as well as Secretary of State. But he isn’t a quitter. The Sanders campaign is mobilizing and it shows. His message is starting to seep through and Americans are responding with increasing poll numbers, volunteers and contributions. He’s eager for the Black community to be a part of what seemed improbable given Clinton’s early popularity. EBONY.com spoke to Sen. Sanders about his political record, where he stands on the Black Lives Matter movement, and what he plans to do with your vote.
EBONY.COM: What sparked your interest in politics?
SEN. SANDERS: It began as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, NY in a 3½-room, rent controlled apartment within a family that did not have a lot of money. It led to stress and tension in my parent’s marriage and in my growing up. At a young age, I became very aware that not only did my family have to struggle but that families around the country were struggling as well. Also, being Jewish and having lost relatives in the Holocaust, I’ve always been aware of the meaning of prejudice. These are things that have remained with me throughout my political career.
EBONY.COM: You recently told students at the University of Chicago that, “No president, not Barack Obama, not Bernie Sanders, not anybody else can implement the changes we need in this country without a political revolution.” Exactly what did you have in mind?
SEN. SANDERS: We live in a country where a small number of people have incredible wealth and power. Our nation has more income and wealth inequality than any other major country. And with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allows very wealthy people to spend unlimited amount of money on the political process, the truth is we have a political system and an economic system controlled by a few extremely wealthy people. Not Barack Obama, not Bernie Sanders, no one person has the influence by himself or herself to take on this enormous array of power unless millions of people begin to work together to demand changes.
It’s not just up to President Bernie Sanders sitting with Republican leaders who want more tax breaks for billionaires, who refuse to raise the minimum wage, who refuse to do pay equity for women workers, or who refuse to move forward with a major jobs program. The only way change happens is when people become more significantly involved in the political process. We have to increase voter turnout and citizen participation so that people know what’s going on and demand a government that works for everybody and not just the one percent.
EBONY.COM: And where does the African American voter fit into that plan?
SEN. SANDERS: In America today, we have a middle class, which has all but disappeared over the last 10 years. We have almost 47 million people living in poverty or working for tremendously low wages. When I say we need to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, that’s going to impact the country but it will impact African Americans even more. When I talk about pay equity for women workers, it will impact all women but it will impact African American women even more because they are more discriminated against and their wages are even lower than White women. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the African American community has fallen back even further economically. The proposals that I talk about are actually more relevant to the Black community.
EBONY.COM: How do you plan to appeal to the Black voter when you’re a Senator from a state that’s mostly White?
SEN. SANDERS: Yes, it’s true, I am from a state that is overwhelmingly White. I am also aware that I am running against somebody whose husband is very popular in the African American community. But, we plan to take our message to the community and so you will see me getting out soon around the country speaking in Black communities, telling people about my life history and my message like the fact that I have one of the strongest civil rights voting records in the Congress. I believe once we explain, it will all make sense.
EBONY.COM: According to a Gallup poll this summer race relations (particularly within the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, police brutality, housing, and education) is the most pressing issue concerning Blacks today. What steps will you take to make this country more racially inclusive?
SEN. SANDERS: One of the ongoing crises in America is institutional racism. We have a very broken criminal justice system. We live in a country where there are more people in jail than any other country on Earth. There are some 2.2 million people currently incarcerated and they are disproportionally African American and Hispanic. Unarmed African Americans have been abused and sometimes killed while in police custody. Clearly these are issues that must be dealt with and changed.
I believe the reason for the level of massive incarceration we currently see has to do with a number of factors, not the least of which is that 51 percent of young African American high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed. We are currently spending about $80 billion to keep people in jail. This is why I have worked with Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) on a $5 billion jobs program geared to young people especially in those areas where unemployment has excelled.
If we invest in jobs for our kids and do our best to keep them in school, we will end up saving a whole lot of lives and whole lot of money. I also know that there is an enormous amount of disgust in the African American community with regards to certain police departments. We need to demilitarize local police departments so that they do not look like occupying armies. We want police departments that look like the communities they are serving.
If the community is a minority one, the police department should reflect that reality. We need to take a hard look at the war on drugs and the number of non-violent offenders who end up getting their lives destroyed by going to prison. We need to look at mandatory minimum sentencing and give judges more flexibility when there are issues of drug abuse or addiction.
These problems are illnesses, not crimes, which means more mental health counseling rather than simply sentencing people to jail. We need to examine the high rates of recidivism so that when people do serve time they have a path back to society, which won’t put them back into the environment that sent them in jail in the first place.
EBONY.COM: You brought up unemployment, which is a major concern for African Americans. What are your plans to help Blacks, whose jobless numbers are disproportionately high?
SEN. SANDERS: First let me mention that the current statistics are not really legitimate. The problem is actually a lot worse. The official unemployment rate today in America is at 5.1 percent but that does not include people who have given up looking for work or those who are working 20 to 25 hours a week when they need to work 40 hours a week. If you add those people, the real unemployment rate in the nation is more like 10.3 percent and you can usually double that for African Americans.
Now, lets talk about youth unemployment. I asked an economist from the Economic Policy Institute to study youth unemployment and it was discovered that kids who graduated from high school and are between the ages of 17 to 20 have actually increased the unemployment numbers. For White kids, that number is 33 percent, for Hispanic youth, it’s 36 percent and for African American youth it’s 51 percent, which is an incredible tragedy.
We need to focus on these young people and create conditions where they can do things constructively. We need a massive federal jobs program to help put people back to work. The economists say that the fastest most effective way to do that is by rebuilding our crumbling public infrastructures like our roads, our bridges, our water systems, airports, rails and so forth.
EBONY.COM: You’ve recently met with several leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. How did that meeting go?
SEN. SANDERS: We met on several occasions and those meetings have all been very productive. Many White people are not sensitive to the kind of abuse that African Americans, especially younger African Americans, receive at the hands of police officers and police departments. I think for most Whites their experience with the police has been good or neutral because they don’t interact with the police as much as those in the Black community. That was made very clear to me and so I have found those meetings to be very useful. It speaks again for the need for criminal justice reform in a very significant way.
EBONY.COM: Is it clear as to why Black Lives Matter is more significant than All Lives Matter?
SEN. SANDERS: Yes, particularly when I think about the case of Sandra Bland from a few months ago. Clearly if Sandra Bland, who was a middle class Black woman, had been a middle class White woman, it is unlikely that the police would have treated her in the same way. It’s unimaginable [what happened to her] but it’s a reality that has absolutely got change.
EBONY.COM: Planned Parenthood has been a big topic in government these days. They provide health services to 2.7 million people, many of them low-income women of color but the organization has come under heavy criticism from the Republican Congress because of the alleged sale of fetal tissue for research and for providing abortions. What are your thoughts on the controversy?
SEN. SANDERS: If you check my record you will find that over the last 25 years that I have worked in Congress, I have a 100% pro-choice voting record. I understand that not everyone agrees and that we are a divide nation on this issue but my view is that a woman has the right to make decisions regarding her own body, not the United States government. Right wing Republicans have attacked Planned Parenthood for years. They will use any excuse that they can but I am a strong supporter because as you said they provide health services to millions.
EBONY.COM: The first televised Democratic debate airs in a few weeks. Are you ready?
SEN. SANDERS: Absolutely. I’m a little nervous but I’m looking forward to it. So far, our campaign has done much better than I think most people anticipated. We have received a great deal of support all across this country. We have a tremendous volunteer network. We have more individual contributors than any other campaign. We’re feeling good and I look forward to a really issue oriented debate with Secretary Clinton and the other candidates.
Follow Sanders on Twitter @BernieSanders to learn more about his campaign.
Wendy L. Wilson is a New York based, award winning journalist and former managing editor for EBONY and JET magazines.