POLITICS
02/13/2016 11:59 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2016

Bernie Sanders Struggles To Defend Reparations Stance To Black Voters

"I know you're afraid to say black, and I know you're afraid to say reparations."

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)  faced some tense moments during a Black America forum as attendees pushed the presidential candidate to endorse reparations on Friday night, a topic he's been pressed on for months as he fights to draw African American voters away from rival Hillary Clinton.

 "I know you're afraid to say black, and I know you're afraid to say reparations," said Felicia Perry, a panelist on the forum that the nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change organized. 

This wasn't a typical Sanders campaign event, where he could give a version of his stump speech to a massive crowd, only taking a few questions before hitting the road to the next venue.  The gymnasium of Patrick Henry High School was packed with voters, many of them black activists, who had waited for over an hour in below freezing temperatures, eagerly awaiting to pick the Vermont senator's brain on issues most important to them. Many in the crowd were aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and activists had called for Sanders to address racial injustice before he even took the stage.

 "Ma’am, I don't think that's a fair statement," Sanders interrupted, but Perry continued to speak.

"It seems like every time you talk about black people, and us getting something for the systemic oppression and exploitation of our people, we have to include every other person of color," she said, as the crowd applauded, urging him to "talk specifically about black people and reparations.”

Sanders, who had just said the phrase "African American" narrowed his gaze, adjusting his glasses with a strained look on his face. He repeatedly shied away from stating his position on whether African Americans should receive reparations, which did not go over well with some in the audience.

"You and I may disagree on this," he said. "It's not just black. It is Latino. There are areas of America, in poorer rural America, where it's white. So, I believe that in a country that has more income and wealth inequality than any other country, then yes, the time is overdue to invest."

As Sanders launched into the exact lines from his stump speech, where he mentions income inequality and poverty in the African-American community, rattling off unemployment numbers, he was interrupted again.

"Say 'black!'" a member of the audience yelled at Sanders.

"I've said 'black' 50 times," Sanders shouted into the microphone. "That's the 51st time."

The reparations issue first emerged on the 2016 campaign trail during a Fusion-sponsored Black Brown forum in January in Iowa. Sanders had agreed to participate in Friday’s forum after a busload of activists from Minnesota showed up in Des Moines. His stance on reparations drew criticism from the writer Te-Nehisi Coates earlier this year, but the influential journalist said this week he’d still vote for Sanders.

Socialist strategies have historically left large swathes of black and native people behind. Roderick Adams, one of the Black America forum panelists

It’s been over six months since Black Lives Matters protesters interrupted Sanders. Since then, he has reworked his stump speech to reflect issues like criminal justice reform.

“Socialist strategies have historically left large swathes of black and native people behind,” said Roderick Adams, one of the panelists. “It was true of the New Deal. It was true of the GI Bill. It was especially true of the federal housing bill. Also, it was true of the Affordable Care Act, which was highly racialized.”

Sanders went on to explain that creating 13 million jobs over the next five years and rebuilding infrastructure would work better then reparations, adding that the money will go into the communities that need it most.

The mood in the room grew tense when members of the audience pressed him for a more detailed agenda.

“How,” shouted members in the audience, wanting more specific answers. “How? How? How?”

Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, took the microphone from Sanders before he was able to clarify, explaining that the Vermont senator  was “on limited time,” before taking one more question.

Sanders’ lack of specific details dismayed several Minnesota voters in the audience.

“I was one of the people yelling how, because we need direct answers,” said Sammy McDowell, 39, a small business owner in North Minneapolis. “Just saying that you’re going to do it is one thing. Actually getting the job done is a whole different story.”

McDowell, who said he is still undecided on who to vote for on March 1, explained the obstacles he has faced over the past four years, at times, fearing he’d have to close his local coffee shop. He said that many people in the community were excited about Sanders, but after Friday, he hopes people will consider the bigger picture.

“He wasn’t as direct as we would like him to be," he said. "That’s what we were expecting today and I don’t think we got those direct questions answered like we wanted. Now, it’s up in the air again. In order for him to get my vote, he’s going to have to be way more specific.”

Others in the audience pointed out that both Sanders and Clinton were invited to the forum ahead of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party’s annual fundraising dinner in St. Paul, but only the Vermont Senator had made an appearance.

“I have been to a lot of black events over the last few months, and Hillary hasn’t shown up to one of them,” said Robert Snead, 24, of Minneapolis. “I’m voting for Bernie Sanders because he supports black people. We value what he has to say.”

Minnesota is an important part of Sanders’ efforts to win the Democratic nomination, relying heavily on the limited number of states holding caucuses. It is one of the most delegate-rich caucus states and about 6.8 percent of the population is African American. Even before the Iowa caucuses, the Vermont senator visited the state for events in Duluth and St. Paul.

“I think Bernie will win Minnesota for sure,” Snead said. “My friends, my family, pretty much everyone I know will be voting for him in March.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the African-American population of Minnesota is 19 percent; in fact, it is 6.8 percent.

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