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The audience's heckling of Sen. Bernie Sanders started when he offered a stem-winder of a response to a question about how he planned to attract the support of women of color.
The Democratic presidential hopeful veered into an explanation of why party unity was crucial to defeating President Donald Trump, whose presidency he said had worsened racism, sexism, and homophobia. He pledged that even if he doesn’t win that he’d do “everything" to ensure that the Democratic nominee becomes the next president.
The grumbling crowd, made up predominantly of women of color, at Wednesday’s She the People presidential forum in Houston let it be known that they weren’t satisfied with his answer.
“What about black women?” someone in the crowd shouted.
One of the moderators, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, nudged Sanders back to the question: Why should black women support him?
“Black women will be an integral part of what our campaign and what our administration is about,” said Sanders, a response that elicited more grumbles and boos.
During his 2016 run for the White House, Sanders trumpeted the need for leadership that would fight corporate interests that were at odds with average working Americans. He more often spoke about inequity in terms of class rather than race, a framing of the issue that rubbed some minority voters the wrong way.
In the lead-up to the 2020 race, Sanders and his campaign have sought to underscore their efforts to win support of minority voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton overwhelming won the African American vote by more than 50 percentage points during the Democratic nomination fight.
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But the episode Wednesday, suggests Sanders still has work to do as he makes his case to black voters.
Bernard Fraga, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University, said that despite the stumble Sanders still has time to make inroads with black voters, who in 2016 made up 25% of the Democratic primary electorate.
“I think what he needs to do is lead with how his policies best address some of the issues that black women voters care about,” Fraga said.
Sanders faced also criticism over the fact his 2016 campaign was dominated by a mostly white leadership team. As he prepared to launch his 2020 campaign, Sanders publicly apologized after a New York Times report detailed women staffers' complaints they were sexually harassed and paid less during the 2016 campaign.
In the early going of the 2020 campaign, he’s hammered at the need for the federal government to promote policies that will end institutional racism and invest in urban communities. Earlier this week, Sanders expressed the controversial position that he supports allowing felons to vote even while they are in prison – an issue that has disproportionately impacted the African American community.
His stump speeches now often include an argument about how racism has exacerbated financial inequality. He’s also more frequently made reference to his own connection to the fight for Civil Rights, including attending the 1963 March on Washington, serving as a leader of the Congress of Racial Equality chapter during his time as a student at the University of Chicago, and getting arrested at an anti-segregation protest.
During the She the People event, Sanders tried to pivot to some of his backstory, noting his support for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and being one of the few white elected officials to back the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
“I have dedicated my life to the fight against racism and sexism and discrimination of all forms,” Sanders said.
The crowd responded with more grumbles and boos.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Heckled at forum, Bernie Sanders still trying to refine message to black voters