This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign is in high gear, and this means more attention on his at times shaky relationship with black communities. One of the things that doomed Sanders early on in 2016 was a crushing loss to Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina primary, a defeat fueled by black voters, and the conventional wisdom is he'll have to do much better with those voters this time around. He kicked off his first rally Saturday at New York's Brooklyn College highlighting his lower-middle-class roots in direct contrast to Donald Trump's charmed upbringing. He followed with a more race-conscious speech Sunday at Chicago's Navy Pier, where he also emphasized his early racial justice activism in the Windy City. That same Sunday he also made a pit stop in Selma, Alabama, with other 2020 candidates for the anniversary of the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" march.
Sanders's efforts came off as heavy-handed to some, leading to Twitter users reviving the 2015 hashtag #BernieSoBlack, which targeted him for arguably exaggerating his importance to the civil rights struggle and his closeness to the black community. Twitter users were going in hard and hilariously, tweeting he's so black "he introduced Fire to Earth & Wind," that he's actually the tenth Wu-Tang Clan member, that he created Soul Train, and that he's even sold them bean pies on Harlem's 125th street.
On Monday morning, Sanders appeared on The Breakfast Club, a hip-hop morning show in New York that has become a regular stop for Democratic candidates. (Sanders was also on the show in 2016.) He touched on issues ranging from decreasing mass incarceration to Medicare for all, largely focusing on how his economically populist initiatives can help African Americans. But things got touchy, to say the least, when the hosts pressed him on some race-specific issues that are bound to keep coming up as 2020 approaches. Here's what Sanders said:
Sanders isn't really here for reparations.
In recent weeks 2020 hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have voiced support for reparations for black Americans, though they haven't explained what that exactly means. And though they were vague about the specifics, the moral stance was still a big moment for Democrats, considering Sanders, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton hadn't taken that stand. Sanders, faced with questions about giving money to descendants of slaves Friday on The View, voiced his opposition, saying, “I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”
On The Breakfast Club, Sanders was taken to task for his stance. When host Charlamagne tha God asked why it seems like he's been "dodging the reparations question," Sanders responded, “Well, the question is what do we mean by reparations?” When defined as economic empowerment for black Americans, he said that ending discrimination in the banking system and paying attention to distressed communities is how he intends to make that happen.
But once the question was point-blank about cash payouts Sanders quickly gave a hard no. “I think the way we go forward is to build America together,” he said, pointing out white and Latinx communities are also struggling. “We’re going to pay attention to the needs of working families and low-income families in this country in a way you’ve never seen.” That wasn't exactly the response Charlamagne was looking for, who pointed out, "the government has systemically oppressed [African Americans] in a way that they haven't for other people," pointing to slavery and mass incarceration. "There should be something done specifically for African Americans," he said. Sanders stuck to his view that tackling mass incarceration and other inequities is a way to help mend that history.
He touts his younger activism career in lieu of race-specific policies.
When asked what he’s done to assist the black community specifically in his career, Sanders assured he doesn't "talk about this very often" then went into his work to desegregate housing at the University Chicago with a group called Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). He spoke on his arrest after holding the first sit-in demonstration in the North with CORE, his time marching on Washington, and his support of Jessie Jackson’s 1988 presidential run. But when asked if there’s any legislation he can point to he responded his past legislation, while not race-specific, benefits African Americans because it "benefits working people."
He’s very, very hype about his new diverse campaign staff.
Apparently Sanders heard the criticism of his 2016 campaign staff’s lack of diversity loud and clear. He highlighted that his campaign co-chairs now include Indian American Congressman Ro Khanna; the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulin Cruz; and Nina Turner, a black woman currently leading Our Revolution, a Sanders-affiliated PAC. “We’ll have DACA people and we’ll announce other people pretty soon,” he said. Compared to Trump's team, which Charlamagne joked is as white as a cabinet of mayonnaise, Sanders said, “Our cabinet will look like America in terms of women and men, racial diversity.”
He skirted questions on how he’d help African Americans take advantage of the legal cannabis industry.
Sanders is very much for legalizing marijuana and expunging the criminal records of those that were affected by racially-biased drug convictions. When pressed on how he would help the black community get in on the big bucks being made in the legal marijuana industry he agreed: “Small business people in the African American community deserve to be a part of that process.”
But when Angela Yee asked if he thinks black Americans should be “guaranteed a certain percentage [of profits],” he interrupted, “I don’t know what a guarantee looks like. But your point is well taken, that the corporations are moving in, they’re moving in on hemp.” He added, “The issue of marijuana is particularly sensitive because you have so many African Americans who have been arrested.”
He could use some comedy coaching to help volley Trump’s disses.
When Trump first found out Sanders was running again in 2020 he spared no time reviving his old nickname for Sanders, tweeting, “Crazy Bernie has just entered the race. I wish him well!”
The hosts tried to coax some anti-Trump disses out of Sanders, but the senator stuck with an earnest list of jabs saying, “Let’s see, we began the program by saying he’s a pathological liar, a fraud, an authoritarian, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, and a religious bigot.”
Just when it seemed like Sanders was about to go in on Trump, saying, “You know what the ugliest thing about this guy is?” (to which DJ Envy and Charlamagne threw out some options like “his toupee” and “orange skin”), Sanders decided to keep it classy. He said, “Most presidents understand you bring people together. You’re going to have disagreements on healthcare, the economy, the environment, climate change fine. But you don’t go out of your way trying to split this country up, that’s disgusting. That’s what he’s doing.” Excellent point, but still would've been fun to hear Sanders call Trump a Nazi Cheeto.