Sanders certainly has reason to think that he is entitled to a good chunk of the African American vote (to the extent that this vote is monolithic, which of course it is not).
In his many years in Congress he has indeed been a strong voice for many issues that are important to African Americans—among them, as he points out, prison reform and income inequality. And he absolutely was involved in the civil rights movement, though I am a bit amused that anyone especially cares one way or the other whether that was HIM at a particular rally or not.
But as several people have pointed out, he hasn’t (yet) made that sale where black voters are concerned. I’m not African American, I don’t know exactly how Sanders comes across to African Americans (and even if I were black I’m only one person), but from what I have read and heard from black writers and friends and acquaintances there is significant doubt that Sanders understands what it means to be African American in this society.
I have a friend, a black Clinton supporter, who expresses it this way: “It doesn’t matter how much income is redistributed, I’m still going to worry about being stopped for driving while black.” In this man’s eyes, Sanders doesn’t fundamentally understand this.
And it’s worth pointing out here, since others have brought up the state that Sanders represents, that Vermont is almost unbelievably white—so damn white that most people accustomed to most of the rest of America can’t quite grasp it.
I live in a small city of 30,000 people or so in upstate NY. The black population of my city is more than twice the black population of the entire state of Vermont. That’s how white Vermont is.
What does this mean? Well, if you want to be elected as a Democrat in my city, or for that matter my county, let alone my state, you have to have significant African American support, and that means support from African American groups, and that means listening to the subtle and not so subtle ways in which being black is an issue that transcends poverty.
It means dealing with why schools in my city, which largely serve the African American population, are so bad; it means dealing with negative feelings from “suburbanites” about the “unsafe” city neighborhoods…
These are things that every Democratic politician in my city deals with on some level. As far as I can see, Sanders, in his life as a Vermont politician, hasn’t had to deal with it, and has chosen not to deal with it when it has come up. The article Sam Lowry linked to above suggests as much.
Sanders may yet break through with black voters. As I say, his policies are generally in that direction, and he is certainly a great deal less racist than the typical 75-year-old white American. Maybe blacks will come to decide that his plans for income redistribution outweigh the concerns they have about him.
But as long as he doesn’t directly acknowledge that the troubles of being black in America are bigger than prison reform and income redistribution, as long as he keeps showing his bona fides by emphasizing marches he was at half a century ago, and as long as he keeps saying vaguely condescending things such as ‘I have a long history in fighting for civil rights. I understand that many people in the African-American community may not understand that” (linked to above), I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.