Sanders Is Behind With Black Voters. He Didn’t Fix That in Flint.


FLINT, Mich. — Cornel West pleaded with his “own black people” to support Senator Bernie Sanders.

An African-American pediatrician praised Mr. Sanders’s health care plans, describing how “black lives matter so much” to the senator.

And community activists assailed Mr. Sanders’s rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., attacking criminal justice and housing policies that they argue devastated communities of color in places like this majority-black city.

Amid this parade of support at a Flint town-hall-style event on Saturday night, Mr. Sanders looked on, largely silent — at least when it came to wooing the black voters whose strong backing of a rival candidate could once again cost Mr. Sanders the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders campaign aides had billed the event as an opportunity for him to make a case directly to black voters for why they should support him over Mr. Biden. But the audience ended up being overwhelmingly white, and Mr. Sanders made so few overtures directly to black voters that the event seemed unlikely to pull large numbers of African-Americans away from Mr. Biden.

Mr. Sanders’s relative silence was deliberate, those involved in the event said. The guest speakers — several of whom were flown into Flint by the campaign — decided before the event that it would be better to let them discuss the issues affecting their communities than the man running for president to represent them.

Mr. Sanders opted not to deliver the speech that he had spent much of the day crafting, according to aides, who declined to describe the message he had hoped to communicate.

Instead, he was left asking questions of the panelists, in effect turning over his campaign message to others like Mr. West, the fiery celebrity academic, Harvard professor and fixture on the left.

“Dr. West, do you think given the reality of the condition of the African-American community right now that supporting a status quo, same-old, same-old type of politician is going to address these issues?” Mr. Sanders asked.

Mr. West, who described Mr. Biden as a “neoliberal centrist,” responded with his own question, wondering why “brother Bernie” wasn’t getting more support among “chocolate” voters.

“I’m nervous,” said Kori Chase, 32, a home health aide. “I really want the people that have supported him vocally to really show up because that’s really what it takes.”

During a 30-minute stump speech, Mr. Sanders did not hold back on Mr. Biden, issuing a series of attacks on the former vice president’s record on trade, Social Security cuts, abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq.

But when it came to racial issues, Mr. Sanders made only one direct reference, arguing that “status quo politics” had “failed the African-American community.”

His panelists were far less restrained. They delivered a series of searing attacks on Mr. Biden’s record on race.

“We fought for the liberation of our people,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the president of the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal think tank. “We need to elect a candidate who understands that the crime bill is wrong, who is going to repeal and replace it and Senator Sanders has made that commitment to our community.”

The overwhelmingly white audience burst into applause.

Trip Gabriel contributed reporting.


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