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Vermont’s Black Leaders: We Were ‘Invisible’ to Bernie Sanders

He’s paying attention to the concerns of black America now, as a presidential candidate. Back when he represented Vermont? Not so much, local activists say.

02.17.16 5:01 AM ET

Back in 2006, the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, a Brattleboro-area civil rights organization, hosted a Candidate Night. The race for the open U.S. Senate seat between Bernie Sanders and Richard Tarrant, a Republican and one of the wealthiest people in the state, had grown increasingly acrimonious.

The audience of African-American activists and other Vermonters of color should have been a friendly one for the socialist congressman.

Instead, remembers Curtiss Reed Jr., the executive director of the group, it became something of a showdown. Sanders “was just really dismissive of anything that had to do with race and racism, saying that they didn’t have anything to do with the issues of income inequality,” Reed told The Daily Beast.

“He just always kept coming back to income inequality as a response, as if talking about income inequality would somehow make issues of racism go away.”

And since winning that race, Sanders’s approach toward Reed and his organization has been one of “benign neglect,” the activist added. “We are a major statewide organization. It would stand to reason that you would check in with your major constituents, but voters of color are simply not on his radar.”

As the Democratic primary heats up, Sanders has made a major point of reaching out to minority voters, picking the endorsement of former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous and campaigning alongside author and social activist Dr. Cornel West. But, in a sense, these are catch-up moves. When the campaign began, Sanders stumbled over issues of race, dismissing Black Lives Matter protesters who interrupted a speech he gave at Netroots Nation in Phoenix. The flat-footedness, allies said, was in part because of the fact that Vermont is 95 percent white. But while the number of African Americans in the state is small, it is also not nil. And many activists and leaders of civil rights organizations say that Sanders has turned a blind eye to their concerns.

Sha’an Mouliert, an activist who founded the African-American Alliance of the Northeast Kingdom, recalled approaching Sanders at a state fair and asking him about a bill sponsored by Michigan Rep. John Conyers that would have examined the issue of reparations for the ancestors of slaves. Sanders, she says, was dismissive, telling her that he didn’t and wouldn’t support it.

“I felt completely negated. Like I was invisible,” she recalled. She later invited him to speak at her organization. Sanders canceled, she said, due to weather, and then never tried to reschedule.

“I think Bernie tends to run away from racial and ethnic issues,” said Vaughn Carney, a corporate lawyer and a leader in the state’s black community. Carney has voted for Sanders in every election but is backing Hillary Clinton this year.

“Racial profiling is a fact of life here. Vermont incarcerates black people at the fourth-highest rate in the U.S., but no one talks about that. I have been beating on that drum for a while now, and I hoped that Bernie would up that mantle, but he has not. He is like a lot of Vermonters who like to congratulate themselves on how progressive they are but sweep these issues under the rug.”

Carney met with Vermont’s other senator, Patrick Leahy, as well as the state’s lone congressional representative about these concerns. Sanders’s office didn’t respond to his efforts, Carney said.

Other civil rights leaders said much the same—that Leahy seemed far more responsive than Sanders. “Overall we felt as though Sen. Leahy was interested in keeping informed on our issues,” said Reed, a compliment he did not pay to his other senator.

When the state was in danger of losing its charter to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Reed said he and others scrambled to keep it.

“We put out an all-points bulletin to our congressional delegation. Leahy responded and was instrumental in drawing attention to it. We got no response back from the other senator’s office, which was an indication that civil rights was not his top priority.”

Which is not to say that Sanders does not have his fans among the African-American community in Vermont. Patrick Brown, the executive director of the Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center, said that Sanders has been a regular at their annual Diversity Conference, once welcoming Anita Hill on stage and once being presented an award by Al Sharpton there.

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(A spokesperson for the Sanders campaign did not respond to an emailed question about what Sanders specifically had done for the African-American community of Vermont.)

“I am surprised he has not tapped into me as an African-American person to speak about his record here,” Brown said. “This is an area he could capitalize more on. We are all so proud of him.”

Shela Linton, an African-American supporter of Sanders from Brattleboro, said the senator deserves credit for his outreach to the black community, especially considering that they are just under 2 percent of the state’s population.

“You don’t know what you don’t know, and he hasn’t had to be accountable to communities of color before,” she said. And others say that if Sanders was quiet on the issues before, he is making up for it now with his frequent mentions of the unequal justice system at his rallies.

“He could have been a little more forceful around the race issue” as a senator, said Paij Wadley-Bailey, the director of the Vermont Anti-Racism Action Team and a longtime supporter of Sanders’s. “It is good that he is beginning it now but it would have been even better if he had made it more a part of his positions before.”