Bernie, black votes matter

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People watch the first democratic presidential debate at a viewing party sponsored by Bernie Sanders supporters at the Ethiopian restaurant Gojjo on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 in West Philadelphia. (MICHAEL BUCHER / For the Daily News)

THERE'S A BIG disconnect between Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and many African-American voters.

I was reminded of that last night when I showed up at a Sanders campaign debate-watch party at the Gojjo Ethiopian Bar & Restaurant, at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philly.

The upper level, set aside for Sanders supporters, was packed with dozens of people casually dressed and eating Ethiopian food as they awaited the start of the first Democratic presidential debate. The room was full of white people. I saw at most two African-Americans. And I made a point of going out on the deck to make sure I hadn't missed anyone.

I wasn't totally surprised, but given Sanders' progressive voting record and the fact that the event was in a racially diverse neighborhood, I expected at least a handful of black folks to be there, maybe wearing those blue-and-white Sanders 2016 T-shirts.

But that is one of the big challenges facing Sanders, who's from an overwhelmingly white state, Vermont. How does he grab the passion and attention of African-American voters who overwhelmingly support Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton? New polling shows Sanders with just 4 percent of the black vote in heavily African-American South Carolina, for example.

A lot of voters just don't know much about the self-described socialist Democrat. (To read up on his platform, log on to berniesanders.com.)

He's making inroads.

Both Ebony and Essence, magazines with largely black readerships, recently profiled the 74-year-old senator. Who knew that Sanders had a black, female national press secretary who's also a Black Lives Matter activist? Sanders hired Symone Sanders (no relation) in August. But it's going to take a whole lot more than that to lure voters from supporting the wife of a man whom people jokingly call the first black president.

"He has to prove himself," Katrina Clark, 36, a biracial teacher, said of Sanders as she played with her cellphone awaiting the start of the debate. "I'm not sold on anybody. If I were sold, I would be out there complaining."

She told me she's having a hard time getting over well-publicized instances earlier this year in which she felt that Sanders wasn't listening enough to the Black Lives Matters protesters who pushed him aside at a campaign appearance in Seattle, calling for changes to the criminal-justice system.

Sanders eventually left that event without giving his speech.

At a previous town hall for Democratic presidential candidates in Phoenix, protesters affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement had taken over the stage.

"The fact that he became so flustered and slipped back into his privilege reminded me that he's still a privileged white man," Clark said last night.

The video clips of those incidents were everywhere. The optics surrounding them were really bad.

If I were Sanders, I would make sure that those images were replaced in voters' minds with more sound bites from him speaking out on racial justice and wealth and income inequality, as he did persuasively last night. That will win him black votes.

"We need to combat institutional racism from the top to the bottom," Sanders said from his podium last night.

An African-American woman who arrived with her Caribbean husband told me she's leaning toward voting for Sanders but still is undecided.

"I'm not 100 percent sure, but he seems to be the most promising for my vote," said Natasha Lavard, 42, a real-estate agent. "His words resonate with me more than anyone else's."

I'm feeling the same way.

But, like Lavard, I'm still not 100 percent convinced.

- The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen