Here’s How Bernie Sanders Missed the Mark at She the People

The audience lost patience when Sanders deflected on two questions his team should have been prepared to address.

[Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders looks ashamed as he speaks to a crowd at the She The People Presidential Forum.]
The dismissal of the She The People event in an attempt to compensate for Sanders’ poor handling of a specific question on white nationalist terror and violence underscores a real problem that we see across political spaces: Black people and women of color not being allowed to be their authentic selves. Sergio Flores / Getty Images

The first presidential forum organized by and for women of color was held at Texas Southern University last week, bringing together 1,700 women from 28 states and at least 15 movement-based organizations.

Moderated by She the People founder Aimee Allison and MSNBC anchor Joy-Ann Reid, the She the People forum hosted eight of the current 20 Democratic presidential candidates. Each candidate was interviewed individually by the moderators and answered audience questions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) first entered the auditorium to thunderous applause. He was asked about addressing gender-based violence and the Equal Rights Amendment. When questioned about policies that would specifically help women of color, Sanders spoke about his broader platform, drawing cheers for his pledge to provide tuition-free public college and to erase student loan debt. But the audience lost patience when Sanders deflected on two questions his team should have been well prepared to address: how to engage Black women voters, and how to address white nationalism and terrorism.

Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders, an organization that helps first- and second-generation Americans seek elected office, asked Sanders, “What do you believe is the federal government’s role to fight against the rise of white nationalism and white terrorist acts, and how do you plan to lead on that in your first year as president?” Citing the recent string of Louisiana church fires, Bhojwani talked about the need to address “terrorist attacks by white men to enact fear upon people of color.”

Sanders gave a general response referring to Trump and demagoguery, but he went back to his standard lines about universal programs and comprehensive immigration reform, seemingly missing the purpose of the question. When Allison followed up, explaining that the question was about white supremacist violence, Sanders referenced his attendance at the March on Washington in the 1960s and his support for Jesse Jackson during the 1988 presidential campaign. It was clear the audience did not appreciate his deflection, as some in the audience booed and others groaned.

This points to a critical weakness for Sanders: He seems unable to move outside the comfort zone of his economic analysis when not giving his traditional stump speech.

I was confused and frustrated because I also thought it was a really easy question,” Wanda Mosley, Georgia state director of Black Voters Matter, told Rewire.News. “I do believe Sen. Sanders is a good person, that he wants what is best for all Americans. I was like, that was kind of easy; he could’ve hit a home run—just condemn the white nationalists and move on. But for whatever reason, he not only stumbled, he went in an entirely different direction.”

Unfortunately, instead of trying to understand the audience’s frustration, some in Sanders’ campaign responded by attacking the She The People attendees. At a rally the next day in Fort Worth, Texas, former state Sen. Nina Turner, co-chair of the Sanders campaign, mischaracterized what transpired at the forum and by doing so, blew a small moment out of proportion.

Hyping up the crowd, Turner claimed attendees at the She The People gathering “want to strip him of his history.” But past deeds are not an answer to the pressing matters facing our communities today—and Turner failed to address how Sanders didn’t answer a direct question about white nationalist terror and violence.

For Turner to frame this small moment as if people were out to attack or destroy Sanders positioned a room full of Black women and women of color as the enemy in front of a rally that appeared full of mostly white attendees. What could have been an honest teachable moment for the campaign and the movement space it claims to be building was turned into an opportunity to get folks worked up at the expense of other Black women and women of color. Instead, the campaign should have considered releasing a clear and definitive response that considered the question raised about white nationalist violence.

As a grassroots volunteer leader with Women for Bernie and African Americans for Bernie in 2016, I spent my time regularly defending him against inaccuracies and providing nuance and context for Sanders’ platform and record. But refusing to acknowledge or consider that some critique is actually valid continues to be a weakness of the Sanders campaign. It is understandable that supporters would want to correct what they feel are misconceptions of their candidate, but Turner’s response was out of context and ultimately not helpful. Leveraging her presence and reputation as a truth-teller, she fueled attacks and blew a small moment of discord out of proportion.

Kandice Webber, co-founder of Houston Rising, told Rewire.News that she was “not surprised by the backlash” after the forum. “This is how America treats Black and non-Black [women of color],” said Webber. “This country is quick to try to beat us down. Considering we responded negatively to one of America’s favorite white men, I expected it. America needs to understand this: We are not your mules. We are coming for equity. In order for us to get what we deserve, there are going to be more upset white men.”

When asked by Rewire.News about what happened at the forum, Bhojwani had a thoughtful response: “I think what’s been lost in this conversation [is] that this [wasn’t] some sort of attack on him. The question is for him and every other candidate to be able to give this more than lip service, to be able to understand what it means for people like me to feel afraid, and not only for ourselves but our communities and families. That requires a kind of empathy and compassion, but it also requires very specific policy responses. [Sanders] talked about economic justice, which is absolutely critical, and there are plenty of rich people who are racist. We need both a response to economic inequality and to the increasing threat that people of color feel around the kind of permission white nationalists have.”

As we build progressive movement spaces and strengthen participation in electoral justice work, it is crucial that we provide space and opportunity to listen to people on the front lines. The dismissal of the She The People event in an attempt to compensate for Sanders’ poor handling of a specific question on white nationalist terror and violence underscores a real problem that we see across political spaces: Black people and women of color not being allowed to be their authentic selves.

Pointing to these unscripted moments as an opportunity for improvement does not discount the senator’s experience; it is a reflection that racial justice and dismantling white supremacy are not stagnant issues and require real thought about what is to be done now.

Another challenge left over from the previous presidential election cycle is the need to distinguish between honest critique and media spin. While supporters and surrogates are working hard to build a winning coalition—and in Sanders’ case, they can point to early polling and recent endorsements from Black politicians in South Carolina as evidence of support—there is little to no acknowledgment of the need for improvement in moments when Sanders goes off script.

Framing this as 1,700 women of color not respecting Sanders’ experience is an example of Black women and women of color being forced to set aside our experiences and feelings for the sake of respectability and white fragility.

“She the People was important because women of color are the backbone of the Democratic Party, but party leadership does not look like us nor does it place value on the issues that affect our communities,” Webber said. “We are treated like ATMs and workhorses. That has gone on for too long and it has led to disenfranchisement. [Women of color (WoC)] are questioning their belief in this party. She the People showed WoC that we are important and we are worth the effort it takes for candidates to come to us and talk about what is important to us. That room was charged with positive and affirming energy. We have traveled a long hard road since November 2016. We needed to be recharged.”

We do not move beyond the Democratic Party’s status quo of taking women of color—and, specifically, Black women—for granted by recreating similar hierarchies of worth and access within a progressive movement space. Positioning Black women and women of color who challenge Sanders as wrong or bad is no different than Democratic Party apparatus maligning us for taking strong stances. The inability to consider criticism and dissent, as well as the failure to address it over the last few years, is obvious. Being a “good person” or “walking the walk” isn’t enough, and all candidates need to speak consistently, boldly, and firmly about a host of issues.

As Bhojwani noted, “It is important that our future president is able to read a room, and understand who is in that room and speak to us authentically, not to pander to an audience. There is a difference between speaking authentically to a room and pandering. We didn’t want pandering from anyone. But in his case, the specific issue around the ‘booing’ is a function of talking about marching with Dr. King to a room full of women whose parents and grandparents were a part of the civil rights movement … and who are now grappling with contemporary issues related to race.”

“I think he needed to go further in a way that would’ve been more meaningful to that audience,” Bhojwani said. “To be frank, I don’t think any of the candidates have a strong or solid plan for how to address the rise of white nationalism.”

There is a difference between championing issues that disproportionately affect Black people and people of color and championing solutions that have the direct purpose of benefiting or supporting our communities. In that moment, on that stage, Sanders failed to deliver.

Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, asked: “How are you making the case for the America for the future, the America we are trying to build? … How are you showing up for today’s fights? What is your plan to keep us safe and help us win in today’s battle?”

Ufot said that Sanders, his team, and his supporters need to “keep that same energy” and be ready to fight alongside Black women today.

This does not have to be fatal to Sanders—there is room to improve and show up consistently whether giving a speech or providing unscripted commentary. There is a long road to the nomination, and just as his 2016 campaign adjusted and learned after the 2015 Netroots protest, I hope his 2020 campaign will learn from this moment.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the name of the New Georgia Project Action Fund.