Fact Check

Bernie Sanders on Institutional Racism

A quote from Bernie Sanders about institutional racism was taken out of context by both pro-Sanders and anti-Sanders groups.

Published March 8, 2016

Bernie Sanders said that white people don't know what it is like to be poor.

On 6 March 2016, Bernie Sanders was asked during a Democratic presidential debate on CNN to identify any "racial blindspots" he might have. Sanders told moderator Don Lemon two stories before concluding that America needed to put an end to institutional racism — one about the plight of a Black Lives Matter activist, the other about an African-American senator who couldn't get a cab:

When I was in one of my first years in Congress, I went to a meeting downtown in Washington, D.C. And I went there with another congressman, an African-American congressman. And then we kind of separated during the meeting. And then I saw him out later on.

And he was sitting there waiting, and I said, well, let’s go out and get a cab. How come you didn’t go out and get a cab? He said, no, I don’t get cabs in Washington, D.C.  This was 20 years ago. Because he was humiliated by the fact that cabdrivers would go past him because he was black. I couldn’t believe, you know, you just sit there and you say, this man did not take a cab 20 years ago in Washington, D.C.

Tell you another story, I was with young people active in the Black Lives Matter movement. A young lady comes up to me and she says, you don’t understand what police do in certain black communities. You don’t understand the degree to which we are terrorized, and I’m not just talking about the horrible shootings that we have seen, which have got to end and we’ve got to hold police officers accountable, I’m just talking about every day activities where police officers are bullying people.

So to answer your question, I would say, and I think it’s similar to what the secretary said, when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.

And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.

Shortly afterward, a meme featuring a quote from the debate appeared on social media:

bernie sanders quote poor

While the image does show a real quote from Bernie Sanders, it is (like just about any quote that gets turned into a meme) lacking necessary context.  Regardless, Sanders detractors shared the image, mocking the senator both for using the word "ghetto," and insinuating that white people could not be poor.

Sanders supporters responded by sharing their own meme, which criticized the media for taking Sanders' quote out of context:

bernie backlash quote

The second meme, however, also also left out some important detail and nuance, such as the fact that Sanders used the phrase "when you're white" in his response. This meme also attempts to frame Sanders' quote to make it appear as though he was simply repeating what the Black Lives Movement activist had told him.

Transcripts and video of the debate are widely available online:

The date after the debate, reporters in Detroit asked Sanders about his use of the term "ghetto":

“What I meant to say is when you talk about ghetto, traditionally what you are talking about is African American communities,” Sanders said.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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