Bernie Sanders is making a push for support from black and Hispanic voters as he seeks to intensify his challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

{mosads}Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, has made a number of comments recently aimed at rebutting the suggestion that his backing will be limited to white progressives.

“As a nation, we have got to apologize for slavery,” he said during an appearance on a black-oriented Sirius XM radio show hosted by Joe Madison last week. In an interview published this month in The Nation, he described police brutality against African-Americans as “a huge issue,” adding, “How do you have police departments in this country that are part of their communities, not oppressors in their communities?”

Speaking to the Hispanic organization La Raza on Monday, he noted that “racism has plagued this country for centuries” and drew on his own experiences as the child of an immigrant who “came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket.”

Sanders’ embrace of minority concerns and sensibilities can hardly be called opportunistic. His involvement with civil rights stretches back to his youth, when he attended the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech, organized financial support for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was arrested for protesting segregation.

But the Vermonter’s recent statements come against a mixed backdrop for his campaign. Even as he performs better than many expected in terms of poll ratings and the size of the crowds he attracts, he lags badly in the battle for non-white support.

A CNN/ORC poll released in June showed Sanders’s support among non-whites to be about half the level of his backing among the nation as a whole. The New York Times noted that another survey, from NBC and The Wall Street Journal, found that 95 percent of non-white Democrats said they could see themselves backing Clinton for the nomination whereas only around one-quarter said the same about Sanders.

The lack of significant support from the African-American community, which is vital in the Democratic primary, complicates the story Sanders would prefer to tell about how he is the candidate of the liberal grassroots seeking to oust the establishment choice, Clinton.

Goldie Taylor, a commentator and former election strategist who is African-American, said that current chatter among progressives included both admiration for the issues that Sanders is raising and concerns “about the homogenous nature of the crowds” at his rallies.

Many, including Taylor, do not doubt Sanders’s bona fides. Instead, they suggest that his long history in the politics of Vermont — one of the whitest states in the union — has shaped his priorities in terms of the topics he most frequently raises.

“You have to be intentional about building a diverse coalition of support,” she said, “and that is not something Bernie Sanders the candidate has had to do during his political career.”

Sanders aides don’t entirely dismiss that critique, even as they emphasize his long history of engagement with civil rights issues. 

“He doesn’t come from a state with a large African-American population, he doesn’t come from a party of the country where African-American politics are a daily part of political life,” said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign. “But he understands it is a very important part of pulling together a campaign for the nomination of the Democratic Party.”

Sanders’s history also has an interesting footnote in terms of race and the politics of Vermont. In 1988, Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, endorsed Jesse Jackson for president. Jackson went on to win the state’s Democratic caucuses, despite the demographic challenges he faced.

Devine noted that Sanders intended to soon tour parts of the United States afflicted by poverty and alienation, including inner cities and that he was still in the process of being introduced to significant parts of the electorate that knew little, if anything, about him.

“A very important part of that introduction is his commitment to civil rights activism. To Latinos, [an important part is] that he is the son of an immigrant, who grew up in an immigrant-rich community, in Brooklyn. These things allow people to see him in a different light,” the aide said.

Even so, Clinton has longstanding connections with black elected officials. Despite the tensions that came to the surface during her 2008 struggle for the Democratic nomination with President Obama, she remains popular among the African-American community writ large. 

In a Pew Research Center poll conducted this past spring, a striking 74 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning black voters said there was “a good chance” that they would support Clinton for the nomination — a significantly stronger showing for the former secretary of State than the 54 percent of whites who said the same thing. 

Strategists who are skeptical that Sanders can even make the nomination battle competitive note just how arduous Obama’s path to victory was in 2008, despite his status as the most credible black presidential candidate ever and the overwhelming African-American support that he received.

“Anyone would have a tough row to hoe to make inroads with African-American voters vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an activist, broadcaster and the author of several books about the black American experience. 

Sanders, he added, “has got a great track record, historically, on civil rights, protest, support — we can’t take that away. But the problem is he’s still coming up against those connections, the ties, that Hillary has, which makes it hard.”

Goldie Taylor acknowledged that the 2008 campaign threw up some painful moments between Hillary and Bill Clinton on one side and President Obama and his supporters in the black community on the other. 

“But I think the Clintons will recover from that,” she said, “and I don’t think there is a candidate standing in their way.”

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