Bernie Sanders on Black Rights

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. Later in life Bernie fought systemic racism against Congress. For instance, in 1991 he opposed a crime bill that he believed would disproportionately punish people of color — especially blacks. Bernie’s civil rights record has earned him a 100 percent rating from the ACLU and a 100 percent from the NAACP.

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 on August 10th, 2015.

You may also be interested in a speech Bernie gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in July 2015, which outlines in even greater detail where he stands on all the issues affecting blacks in America today.


Bernie is committed to the cause of affordable, quality education. Since his days as a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960’s, 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.

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. First off, “affirmative action” is a loaded term with many myths. Think about it more broadly as a positive legal action to address the impact of structural discrimination caused by systemic racism and other sorts of deep-set, unfortunate prejudices within our larger society. 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.

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 below 1963 photo, 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:

  • Arguing that ”the most formative years of a child’s life is from zero to four years of age,” Bernie wants to institute universal pre-kindergarten for all Americans — a program he was able to initiate in his home state of Vermont. Pre-K is currently too expensive for most Americans to afford, in spite of the fact that early childhood education is closely correlated to higher economic and educational attainment later in life. With universal pre-kindergarten, black Americans would have more opportunities.
  • In 2006, Bernie voted in favor of the Reverse the Raid on Student Aid Act, in order to lower student loan interest rates and boost the college participation rates of low-income black and Latino students.
  • Bernie co-sponsored and advocated for the Student Loan Affordability Act of 2013, which would have extended the reduced interest rate for Federal Direct Stafford Loans. These rates would have benefited black college students as they disproportionately borrow the most for college loans.
  • Relatedly, Bernie has consistently argued for student loan forgiveness and spoken out against the fact that the federal government makes billions of dollars in profits on this debt.

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.

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 regards to black Americans?

Bernie was the first presidential candidate to speak out about the case of Sandra Bland, who died while in police custody in July 2015. Emphasizing the wide racial disparity in these cases, he said poignantly that it was “very hard to imagine a white middle-class woman treated in the same way that Sandra Bland was.”

Bernie has also vowed to confront the school-to-prison pipeline by reforming education 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 co-sponsored the Democracy Restoration Act, which seeks 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.

There many more details with regards to where Bernie stands on these issues at the Criminal Justice and Racial Justice issue pages and also on Bernie’s racial justice plan. 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.

Wealth & Income Inequality

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 someone who’s been incarcerated a job.

But it’s even worse for black Americans trying to get a job with a criminal record. They are 5 percent likely to get 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.

The University of Chicago did a field experiment where they responded to 1,300 help-wanted ads by sending out two identical resumes with the only variation being the applicant’s name. The study found that 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 inequity 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 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 they cite it as the number-one issue affecting their families:


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. Bernie further discusses the lack of jobs paying good wages issue in the below June 2014 TV interview:

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 inequality. 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 less 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.

Interested in more on how racism perpetuates economic inequality among black Americans in everyday ways? Check out this short video:

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 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 reading 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 jobsreforming our criminal justice system (including addressing racial issues within it), and many more improvements.