Sanders Scraps Speech on Race in Michigan, Defers to Surrogates

Bernie Sanders scrapped a speech Saturday night that was supposed to make the case for why black voters should support him over Joe Biden after determining it would be better for the black participants at the event to speak on the topic.

At a town hall on “racial and economic justice” in Flint, Michigan, Sanders was scheduled to deliver a prewritten speech that spokesman Mike Casca said would “directly address the African-American community” and contrast the Vermont senator’s record with Biden’s.

Instead, Sanders delivered a roughly 30-minute version of his stump speech to a mostly white crowd and made little mention of issues of race. A six-person panel that included Cornel West, a Harvard philosophy professor and top Sanders surrogate, then addressed issues of racial inequities.

“They talked over the idea and decided it was probably better to let the people of color who were on the panel discuss instead of him giving a traditional speech,” Casca said in explaining why the speech was scrapped.

He added: “He does not have those experiences. He is a white Jewish man.”

For Sanders, making inroads with black voters is critical to securing the nomination, as Biden holds a lead with black voters in national polls. Biden also trounced Sanders in the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary, where a majority of the Democratic electorate is black. A recent poll from The Detroit News found Biden leading Sanders among black voters 41% to 16% in Michigan, which has the 12th largest black population in the U.S. and will hold its primary on Tuesday.

Sanders has spent the past week criticizing Biden for his record on economic policies, the Iraq War, and more recently, his support of the Hyde Amendment and the Defense of Marriage Act. Sanders was expected to deliver an explicit message to black voters on Saturday, but he instead delegated that task to others at the event in Flint, a majority-black city that has grabbed national headlines for its crisis with lead-tainted water.

“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,” Sanders asked West, a prominent African-American activist and scholar, about Biden’s candidacy.

West launched into an extended critique of neoliberalism and made an impassioned case for democratic socialism. He criticized Biden as a “neoliberal centrist.”

“The neoliberalist who all of a sudden now is coming back to life and the catalyst was my own black people,” West said of Biden. “Oh, I’m so disappointed. Oh, I’m so upset.”

Casca, the Sanders spokesman, said the last-minute changes did not dilute the candidate’s message. He said the campaign achieved its goal of making clear why Sanders would be a better president for black voters, though he did not give specific examples of why Sanders’ record is superior to Biden’s. He also refused to share any details about what Sanders had planned to say in his speech.

“We are making inroads,” Casca said about the campaign’s outreach to black voters. “It’s not perfect, but we’re making inroads.”

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