Bernie Sanders on Black Rights

“Have we made progress in civil rights in this country? No question. But do we still have a very long way to go to end the institutional racism which permeates almost every aspect of our society? Absolutely. Together, we are going to put an end to that.” Bernie Sanders, April 9, 2019

Bernie Sanders has a long history of fighting for social equality and the rights of black Americans — a record that goes back to the early 1960s. In college, he was a student leader of the Congress of Racial Equality and was arrested for protesting institutional segregation. His views were cemented in 1963 when he marched on Washington and witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pivotal “I have a dream” speech. 

In Congress, Bernie opposed the 1991 crime bill that he believed would disproportionately punish people of color — especially African Americans. Bernie’s civil rights record has earned him one of the highest scores given to a U.S. Senator and a 100 percent score from the NAACP

Bernie Sanders is committed to ending racial disparities. He often refers to these disparities as the “disparity within the disparity.” Bernie understands that slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, predatory lending, redlining, and other factors have led to racial economic disparities and a theft of wealth from African Americans.

Education: Education isn’t a privilege — it’s a right. Everyone deserves access to affordable, quality education, including universal pre-K and college, and we need to increase access to it for people of color to provide greater economic opportunities. 

Crime & Social Justice: The U.S. has the highest prison population rate in the developed world, with a distressingly disproportionate number of black inmates behind bars and many for drug offenses and other non-violent crimes. Our criminal justice system is broken and must be reformed to provide opportunity instead of incarceration.

Income Equality & The Racial Wealth Gap: Economic justice is tied to racial justice. Black youth unemployment is at 51 percent, higher than any other demographic. We need a federal jobs program to put the unemployed — including black youth and adults alike — to work, and we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. Moreover, we need tax reform so corporations and billionaires pay their fair share and fund the expansion of the social safety net. Additionally, we must repair the racial wealth gap and end the institutional racism in the financial services industry such as redlining.

Infant Mortality Rate of Black Children & Death Rate of Black Mothers: We must identify and fix the underlying causes that lead to a higher mortality rate among black children and black mothers.

Reparations: Many black Americans are still experiencing social and economic disadvantages as a result slavery in America. Bernie supports establishing a commission to study and research reparations for American descendants of slaves as well as investing resources into distressed communities.

Note: As is the nature of this project, this page highlights Bernie’s views and record on issues affecting black Americans. For more detailed information, check out the comprehensive racial justice plan Bernie released as part of his 2020 platform.


Bernie is committed to ensuring an affordable, quality education for every American. Since his days as a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, he’s been a staunch advocate for the rights of black Americans to have equal access to education — particularly access to higher education, which remains elusive to far too many black Americans. He is committed to fully funding Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and, since 2015, has advocated for making public universities tuition free so anyone who wants to can pursue higher education opportunities.

What are the barriers to college that are particular to black students?

Although the U.S. has made progress on college admittance for black students, they are still more likely to go to community colleges for a two-year degree or enroll part-time at four-year institutions than enroll full-time. The problem is that students that do not enroll as full-time students are less likely to graduate.

Some experts point to the income gap as one hurdle to blacks completing a college degree. Of all the students enrolled in four-year colleges, 19 percent of whites attend an elite research university while only nine percent of blacks do. And once they graduate, black students are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates, making paying down student debt even more difficult.

Wait a second… doesn’t affirmative action make it easier for black students to get scholarships?

Not necessarily. There are many myths associated with affirmative action. The effort to improve the employment and educational opportunities for minority demographics has been a decades-long struggle. Affirmative action aims to address the impact of structural discrimination caused by systemic racism and other sorts of deep-set prejudices within society. Unfortunately, many of those barriers have not been successfully removed by affirmative action efforts. With that said, yes, affirmative action has done a lot to help black students.

But white students still receive a disproportionate share of scholarships, and are far more likely to receive scholarship money than black students. Though they make up 62 percent of the college population, white students get about 76 percent of all financial aid. They’re also almost 40 percent more likely to win a private scholarship than black students.

What’s the story with black colleges? Do they address these issues?

You’re talking about what we call “historically black colleges and universities” (HBCUs), right? These are schools in the U.S. that were established before 1964 with the intention of serving the black community.

Currently these HBCUs serve students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, West Virginia’s Bluefield State College, a historically black college, is 82 percent white. However, even if all HBCUs were dedicated to educating mostly or only black college students, there are not enough of them to address the demand for higher education among the black population.

What Is Bernie’s Plan For HBCUs?

Bernie wants to make large investments in HBCUs so that they’re fully funded. He’s a cosponsor of S.461, the HBCU PARTNERS Act. The aim of this legislation is to mandate yearly planning to coordinate the efforts of HBCUs and federal government agencies to support and expand participation with HBCUs.

Is segregation in the U.S. education system still an issue today?

Yes. America’s public school system is still highly segregated, with 96 percent of black students attending a majority non-white school and 67 percent of white students attending a majority white school. As you might know from his background, Bernie has battled institutional segregation since the 1960s, when he was arrested for protesting segregation in public schools in Chicago.

In the 1963 photo below, Bernie — then a leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, an NAACP ally — stands next to the University of Chicago president who is addressing the sit-in Bernie had organized to protest segregation in their college’s dorms. It was Chicago’s first civil rights sit-in:

Besides supporting the civil rights movement early on, what exactly has Bernie done to advocate for affordable, quality education for blacks and others?

Bernie has been a staunch advocate for everyone to have access to an affordable and quality education, especially black Americans and other minorities. Over the last several years, he’s supported several programs and acts to make education easier to attain:

Learn more about Bernie’s stances on Education and Economic Justice.

Crime & Social Justice

Black Americans are disproportionately overrepresented and overcharged in our current justice system. This video highlights the racial bias in the American criminal justice system.

According to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, one out of three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, as compared to only one out of 17 whites.

Black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth.

Bernie has consistently spoken out about the problem of mass incarceration, particularly of people of color, calling it an “unspeakable tragedy.” In May 2015, he addressed the issue at Drake University:

That sounds bad.

Yep. Black students who go to jail or juvenile detention centers have decreased literacy rates, can expect lower grades, drop out at a higher rate, and end up committing more crime. And this devastating problem is not exclusive to black Americans.

In fact, this situation is so common it’s been coined the “school-to-prison pipeline”:

But isn’t the justice system meant to protect all citizens?

It should. But while black people make up only 13 percent of the population, they account for 31 percent of all victims killed by police. Blacks make up nearly 40 percent of unarmed individuals killed by police with a gun and 42 percent of unarmed individuals that are killed by police by means other than a gun. (And remember: statistics on police shootings are self-reported, so this data probably underestimates this depressing state of affairs.)

So what has Bernie done in order to protect and advocate for criminal justice reform with regard to black Americans?

Bernie has vowed to confront the school-to-prison pipeline by reforming the education system and investing in more jobs for American youth. (Learn more about his youth employment and education positions.) In 2000, he voted to increase funds for alternative drug courts and Boys & Girls Club of America instead of allocating more money to prisons.

In 2015, Bernie cosponsored the Democracy Restoration Act, which sought to reinstate voting rights to people who have served their time and been freed from prison. This law would reinstate voting rights to the one in 13 black Americans who have lost the right to participate in our democratic process. Bernie Sanders has also called for the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2019, Bernie called for restoring the voting rights of all felons. He believes we should, “Re-enfranchise the right to vote to the 1 in 13 African-Americans who have had their vote taken away by a felony conviction, paid their debt to society, and deserve to have their rights restored.”

So the Boston Bomber would be able to vote?

Yep. So would the ~20,000 prisoners who are currently serving time because they have been falsely convicted.

This idea sounds radical.

It’s not! Prisoners in Maine and Vermont have the right to vote, as do prisoners in Canada and Israel.

There many more details with regards to where Bernie stands on these issues at the Criminal Justice and Racial Justice issue pages as well as Bernie’s racial justice platform. The bottom line is that our criminal justice is broken, and its brokenness heartbreakingly affects blacks more than any other group. As a result, Bernie advocates that it has to be reformed from the ground-up.

Income Inequality & The Racial Wealth Gap

Black Americans get paid less money for the same work, even if they have educations and qualifications similar to their white counterparts. This wage gap only begins to narrow when comparing people who earn professional degrees. But while a white high school dropout earns on average $29,200 per year, a black high school dropout earns about $4,000 less. What’s more, a black man with a high school diploma makes about $27,200 per year. One with an associate’s degree has roughly the same chances to get a job as a white male who never graduated from high school. And it’s even worse for black women, who make an average of $19,300 without a high school diploma while white women make $21,800.

Are black Americans less likely to get a job than white Americans, all things being equal?

Finding work and making ends meet can be difficult for anyone — as Bernie has told us. But it can be even more difficult for black Americans. The unemployment rate for black college grads is more than double that of all other college unemployed college graduates: 12.4 percent compared to 5.6 percent (as of 2013). And in total, black youth unemployment is at 51 percent, according to a 2015 Economic Policy Institute study — a figure Bernie called “a national tragedy.”

But why? Do blacks spend less time looking for jobs?

Not even close. For starters, there’s the whole mass incarceration of blacks situation we discussed previously. Having a criminal record can deter employers from offering a job to someone who’s been incarcerated.

But it’s even worse for black Americans trying to get a job with a criminal record. They have a 5% likelihood of getting a callback for an interview, compared to white Americans at 17%.


Having less access to higher education also keeps black Americans from being able to find jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less education means higher unemployment and lower earnings.

And to compound everything even further, black job applicants face institutional racism that makes getting jobs harder than it is for anyone else.

Studies show that résumés with traditionally “black sounding” names were 50 percent less likely to get emailed or called back, even when they had the exact same qualifications and education as the candidate with a more traditional “white sounding” name.

That wasn’t the only study to show inherent racial bias in the job application process. Arizona State University conducted a three-year study on criminal records and employment revealing that a white man with a criminal record has a higher chance of getting a call back for a job than a black man with a clean record.

Learn more about the racial wage gap and Bernie’s proposals to address wage inequality here.

But it’s not just about getting a job. It’s about getting a good job, right?

Right. Bernie is concerned with the fact that there are too many Americans working very low-paying jobs — often full-time or several jobs at once — and still not making ends meet. In Bernie’s opinion, no working American should be living in poverty.

According to 2012 data, 14 percent of blacks are considered “working poor” — people whose incomes are below the poverty level. Compare this to 6 percent of whites considered “working poor”. The black community is so concerned with the scarcity of jobs paying good wages that some studies show it is the number-one issue affecting their families:


Image result for black families number one issue poll

Raising the minimum wage from a “starvation wage” to a “living wage” — as Bernie puts it in this 2013 TV interview — is a practical way to address the problem.

A major part of Bernie’s presidential campaign is to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, up from $7.25 per hour. He also seeks to create more jobs paying decent wages through an infrastructure jobs program and a youth employment bill.

If black Americans made the same amount of money as white Americans, would economic inequality issues affecting blacks be resolved?

Not quite. Black Americans would still face other economic inequalities. For example, a Yale study found that when shopping for a vehicle at a used-car dealership, black participants were quoted prices about $700 higher than that of the white participants. And when bargaining, dealers were less likely to come down on the price.

And if you wanted to auction something on eBay? A white hand holding an iPhone has about a 21 percent higher chance of getting an offer than a picture of a black hand holding the exact same device. In attempting to buy a new home, black Americans are shown 17.7 percent fewer homes than whites, and even if they are shown the same home, they are likelier to pay more for it. So while increasing the wage black Americans receive will increase their standard of living, it will not solve all of the economic inequality issues they face.

So what does Bernie want to do about income and wealth disparity among blacks?

Bernie is on the front line of addressing economic inequality for all Americans, particularly blacks who are disproportionately affected by systemic inequities that directly contribute to economic disparity. An important thing to understand about Bernie — perhaps the most important thing with regards to his views on issues affecting blacks and other people of color — is that he views economic inequality and institutional racism as parallel and interrelated issues that must be addressed simultaneously.

Bernie explained how he sees structural racism and economic inequality as intimately related in his speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (previously mentioned in the introduction to this issue page). For context, the SCLC is a primarily black civil rights organization once led by Martin Luther King, Jr. that traces its roots to the Montgomery bus boycott.

From Bernie’s speech:

“Too many African-Americans today are simultaneously having to deal the crisis of racial justice while coping with the effects of poverty and economic deprivation, such as drugs, crime, and despair.

… As Martin Luther King, Jr., said; Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.

Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry. I am angry. And people have a right to be angry. Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve our communities, is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter. And we must value black lives.”

Later in the speech, Bernie linked police violence against blacks to economic inequality: “Communities of color also face the violence of economic deprivation. Let’s be frank: neighborhoods like those in west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray resided, suffer the most.”

So when Bernie addresses economic inequality — the pillar of his presidential campaign — in his view, he is also talking about addressing racial injustices, even if he doesn’t necessarily mention race every single time.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that economic disparity was tied to racial disparity. In fact, his famous march on Washington in 1963, where King gave his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech — which Bernie was there to witness — was actually called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Indeed, the promotional pamphlet for the march spoke of the “twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation.”

Similarly, Bernie believes people of color face systemic discrimination when it comes to earning a fair living wage and having equal access to the “American Dream”.

Visit the Criminal Justice page and the Racial Justice issue page for more on Bernie’s views with regards to racial issues specific to the criminal justice system. And we highly recommend watching the entire SCLC speech because it outlines Bernie’s positions on most issues affecting black Americans today.

OK, so Bernie sees economic inequality as a racial justice issue. Where do I learn more about what he’s going to do about it?

You can start learning about Bernie’s views on addressing economic inequality for all Americans here.

As a sneak-peek, it involves instituting progressive tax reform so corporations and billionaires pay their fair share, increasing social safety net programs (e.g. public assistance, healthcare, education) to help people get ahead, raising the minimum wage, strengthening workers’ rights, creating more and better jobs, reforming our criminal justice system (including addressing racial issues within it), and many more improvements.

You can also click here to learn more about Bernie’s plan to make equal pay for equal work a reality.

Infant Mortality Rate of Black Children & Death Rate of Black Mothers 

Black infants and children die at a higher rate than other groups.

The rate of women in the U.S. dying while giving birth is rising. The rate of black women dying during pregnancy and childbirth is considerably higher than the rate for white white women: 40.0 deaths per 100,000 live births for black women compared to 12.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women.

These numbers show that black women are almost three times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women.

What is Bernie doing about this?

Bernie has cosponsored the Maternal CARE Act, which would require that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “award grants to health professional training programs for training that addresses implicit bias (e.g., racial bias) in the practice of obstetrics and gynecology.”


Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, American descendants of slavery still face social and economic inequalities as a direct result of the legacy of slavery. One of those inequalities is the racial wealth gap. The median white household is ten times more wealthy than the median black household.

How does Bernie plan to address lasting inequalities from the legacy of slavery?

Bernie supports two policy proposals to address these inequalities. At a CNN Town Hall, Bernie expressed support for Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 proposal

Clyburn’s proposal would make sure that at least 10% of Rural Development investments would go to communities in persistent poverty. These communities are those where at least 20% of the population has lived below the poverty line for the past 30 years or longer.

Bernie also supports H.R.40, a bill that would create a commission to study reparations for American descendants of slaves and make recommendations to Congress for appropriate remedies.

Has the United States paid reparations to other disenfranchised groups?

Yes, the United States government has paid reparation to other disenfranchised groups before. Japanese Americans have been paid reparations for being sent to interment camps during World War Two. Victims of the Holocaust have also received reparations from the United States government.