KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Last night on the Democratic side of the campaign, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton met for a debate in Flint, Mich. They talked about the ongoing water crisis in the city, and they talked a lot about race. Some of the ways the candidates talked about race last night have been criticized. We have NPR's Sam Sanders here with us to make sense of it all. Hey, Sam.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey there.
MCEVERS: So what happened last night? There was one particular moment that stood out, right? Tell us about it.
S. SANDERS: Yes. So towards the end of the CNN debate in Flint, Don Lemon of CNN asked Sanders and Clinton what their, quote, "racial blind spots" are. And they both seemed to give pretty thoughtful answers, but one part of Sanders' response stood out.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: 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 when you get dragged out of a car.
S. SANDERS: So you could tell that he meant well, but it was very clunky. You know, lots of white people are poor, too. And not all black people are poor, and not all black people live in ghettos. And even the use of the word ghetto is seen by some as problematic and a bit racially coded. This was a tough moment for Sanders who is doing all he can to really appeal to black voters ahead of Michigan's primary on Tuesday night.
MCEVERS: I mean, so what do these comments say about where Sanders, as a candidate, stands on race - I mean, where he stands with black voters?
S. SANDERS: So I spoke with Andra Gillespie. She studies race and politics at Emory University. And she says those comments reveal a problem that he's had for some time this campaign. Sanders seems to see the world through an economic prism.
ANDRA GILLESPIE: That's kind of the fundamental problem between some blacks and white progressives - is this notion that white progressives think about class so much that they forget that there's class diversity within African communities and that there are ways that racism affects blacks regardless of their class status.
S. SANDERS: And when it comes to talking about race and politics, Sanders seems to be a bit newer at this. He is from Vermont, a state that is very, very white. And he was active during the civil rights movement, but that was decades ago. Clinton has a longer history in the South and speaking to black voters, and her husband does, too. It's kind of like speaking a language. If you spend lots of time doing it and have been doing it for a while, you'll just be better at it. And I think that when it comes to speaking about race and politics, Sanders is just newer at this.
MCEVERS: Let's be clear. Hillary Clinton got tripped up a bit last night, too - right? - I mean, but in a different kind of way. Tell us about that.
S. SANDERS: Yeah. She faced some policy questions over her support of some of her husband's policies - the crime bill in '94, the welfare reform bill in 1996. Lots of critics say that those two policies hurt black families and sent more black men to prison. She did say in hindsight, some parts of those policies were wrong, but for the last several elections, those bills were either forgotten or seen as wins for Democrats. This issue has been seeming to catch her off guard the entire election.
MCEVERS: And what are we supposed to learn from all this?
S. SANDERS: I mean, so it underscores how important the black vote is to Democrats. They make up a large portion of primary voters in many of these key states. And we have to note how much more this side of the race has been spending talking about race than the GOP side. They don't talk about it that much at all.
S. SANDERS: And what I found interesting last night - was watching this - it would be hard for me to imagine '08 Obama having as much space to talk about race the way that Clinton and Sanders did. He was so guarded about race and about being seen as acceptable and moderate. He wouldn't have been allowed to have those conversations, I think.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Sam Sanders. Thanks so much.
S. SANDERS: Thanks, Kelly.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.