From the start of his campaign, Sanders and his aides tried to respond to criticisms on race. They were quick to note his history in the civil rights movement at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, framing it as the formative event in his political awakening: “His activism and when it occurred, as a young college student, set in motion the direction of his life,” Sanders adviser Tad Devine told the Chicago Tribune. After Black Lives Matter activists targeted Sanders early on for being tone-deaf about policing, he appointed Symone Sanders, an African-American woman who had been an activist on issues of race and criminal justice, as his national press secretary—ostensibly his most visible messenger on TV. And he made it a point to visit parts of the country where racial disparity is on full display, like West Baltimore, the home of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in the back of a police vehicle in 2015 and whose name became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though Sanders lost a majority of the black vote in the 2016 Democratic primaries, he did win a majority of black (and Latino) voters under age 35 in several states. All over the country, when I talked with black voters, they revealed the same generational differences you’d expect to hear from, well, white voters. Like any other group, the way black voters think about issues like the economy or policing is directly influenced by the times in which they came of age. Living through the war on drugs or the economic boom of the ’90s might mean you see the world a bit differently than younger voters who grew up during the Great Recession and birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Any candidate who wants to win, say, the 2020 South Carolina primary, needs to understand the nuance that can exist within a voting bloc that many outside observers deem monolithic.)