Bernie Sanders talks 'Black America' in heated north Minneapolis forum

Sanders said "black" a bunch of times Friday evening. He counted.

Sanders said "black" a bunch of times Friday evening. He counted.

Bernie Sanders is not afraid to talk "black issues," to black people, and is not afraid to say the word "black." The Democratic candidate for president proved as much during an occasionally testy forum event in north Minneapolis Friday evening, engaging with panel and audience members who'd come loaded with questions about criminal justice, inequality, and racism. 

Even the avowed socialist's appearance at Patrick Henry High School was historic, in a way: Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to campaign on the city's north side since Jesse Jackson in 1992. 

At one point near the end of the discussion, one panelist faulted Sanders for speaking in generalities, and said he was "afraid to say the word black." Sanders disputed that claim in his response.

"I've said black 50 times," Sanders said. "That was the 51st time." 

Nearly 1,000 people crammed the auditorium for the event staged by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and thousands more watched the event streaming online. Sanders was already scheduled to be in town for the night's Humphrey-Mondale dinner, an annual fundraiser for the Minnesota DFL Party; his agreement to participate in the discussion centered on race was only announced earlier this week.

Hillary Clinton, also in town for the Humphrey-Mondale fundraiser, was invited, but turned down the offer to attend. Instead, Clinton issued a preemptive strike via press release earlier Friday, highlighting her support from prominent black Minnesotans, including retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, who said Clinton "knows how to govern."

Sanders squeezed the event in before a big-shot fundraiser event later in the night.

Sanders squeezed the event in before a big-shot fundraiser event later in the night.

The forum event, meanwhile, was kicked-off by Sanders' own prominent black supporter, DFL U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. In introducing the Vermont U.S. senator, Ellison said his "dear friend" was the only member of the senate he could find to sponsor federal legislation for a $15 minimum wage. Ellison touted Sanders' opposition to privatized prisons, and support for other policies, saying Sanders gives voters "an opportunity to vote for someone... who will bring true racial equality," and close the racial gap on economic outcomes.

"I still support [President Barack] Obama," Ellison said. "But I'm telling you this: We can do better."

After the introduction, Sanders gave an abbreviated version of his campaign stump speech, tailoring his message to hit points relating to racial inequality. A Sanders administration would do "everything possible to end institutional racism" in America, he said, and would tackle the ongoing occurrence of police shootings of unarmed black men, among other disparities. Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for the offense, said Sanders, who said he would seek to eliminate marijuana from federal controlled substance status.

Sanders' fellow panel members were all black Twin Cities residents, and each came with at least one question about a topic of interest to them. Asked about fostering minority-owned businesses, Sanders said he wants to eliminate federal tax subsidies for "multinational corporations," and instead offer subsidies to "small businesses in high-priority areas."

At one point, moderator Anthony Newby turned to the audience, taking a question from Jason Sole, a former gang member and drug dealer who now runs a consulting business, and is an assistant professor at Metro State University.

"Intrinsically, I can 'feel the Bern'," said Sole. "But I can't manifest it in any physical way. I can't cast a ballot."

As a convicted felon, Sole is barred from voting in Minnesota, making him one of 47,000 ex-cons who can't participate in an election until they have completed probation, parole, or a conditional release. Sanders, whose own state allows the re-enfranchisement of felons, said prohibiting them from participating is "stupid and bad," and blocks an "off the charts" number of people from voting in states like Texas and Florida.  

"And don't think there's not another purpose here as well," Sanders said. "If you have large numbers of African American men and women not able to vote, somebody benefits from that." 

Sanders handled almost every question in similarly brash fashion, but did sidestep one issue that surfaced more than once. An audience member rose and shouted her question, asking why Sanders doesn't support reparations to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves, comparing it to Germany's paying nearly $90 billion to mostly Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Another panelist picked up the same issue. "I know you're scared to say black, I know you're scared to say reparations," she said. "Can we please talk about black people and reparations?"

The question of reparations, long-dormant in American politics, has resurfaced thanks to an essay by The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, earlier this year, called out Sanders for going on record against direct redress to slave descendants. (This week, Coates told Democracy Now! that despite that dissatisfaction, he's still voting for Sanders.) 

Sanders' response to the woman's challenge:

"You and I may have a disagreement on this, because it's not just black. It is Latinos, there are areas in America, in poor rural areas, where it's whites," he said. 

"We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth, especially within the African American community," Sanders said. Then, seemingly in response to a shout from someone in the crowd, he continued: "I said 'black' 50 times, alright? That's the 51st time. This is a national issue.What I believe we should do is to invest most heavily in those communities most in need. When you have 35 percent of black children living in poverty, when you have half of the kids in this country in public schools on free or reduced lunches, when youth unemployment in the African American community is 51 percent, those are exactly the kind of communities you invest in." 

Soon after, Sanders departed for the Humphrey-Mondale event, where he would come face-to-face with Clinton and, one suspects, a very different conversation than the one he'd found in north Minneapolis.