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Clarence Page: Why has Sanders stumbled on race? We all do

Did Sen. Bernie Sanders really say that white people “don’t know what it’s like to be poor?” Well, yes, he said it, but he didn’t mean it, which only shows how quickly serious presidential debates can turn pretty goofy.

In context, the Vermont Democrat’s “ghetto gaffe,” as some headline writes quickly branded it, came during Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Mich.

Responding to a question from CNN’s Don Lemon about what “racial blind spots” the candidates had, Sanders 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.”

With that, Sanders accidentally landed in the ever-shifting sands of political correctness. That’s an etiquette that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump loves to flout but it still means something to liberals, among whom the comment touched off a blizzard of ridicule in social media.

Sanders tried to clarify his remarks the next day with an obligatory “Beg your pardon….”

“What I meant to say is when you talk about ghettos traditionally, what you’re talking about is African-American communities,” Sanders told a gaggle of reporters.

“I think many white people are not aware of the kinds of pressures and the kind of police oppression that sometimes takes place within the African-American community.”

That’s ironic, I thought, since “ghetto” originally referred, I am told, to the part of Venice to which Jews were restricted and segregated — centuries before the word was applied in the 1960s to socially and economically segregated African-American communities.

But our language around race is filled with ironies. “Ghetto” has fallen out of fashion, except as a put-down of somebody’s taste or behavior (“That’s so ghetto”). Sanders’ revival of its earlier meaning brought to mind Elvis Presley’s 1969 hit, In the Ghetto. (“On a cold and gray Chicago mornin' a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto….”), along with the thought that perhaps Bernie needs to update his record collection.

But more seriously, Sanders comments touched a nerve with a number of African-Americans with its implication that most black people are poor and that white people aren’t.

In fact, only 26.2 percent of African-Americans fall below the poverty line, according to the latest census data. That’s a higher rate than the 12.7 percent of non-Hispanic whites who live below the poverty line or the 23.6 percent of Hispanics.

But since we have almost five times more non-Hispanic whites than blacks in this nation, poor whites outnumber poor blacks by almost three-to-one. If we were being truly honest about race, we would be talking about poverty as a white problem, more than a black burden.

But stereotypes die hard, even among liberals who like to think of themselves as more candid about race than conservatives like Trump, who too often view racism as a non-issue unless it discriminates against whites.

Sanders’ gaffe in the heat of debate, revealed a not very deeply hidden truth: He primarily views our national political and economic divides through a lens of class, not race.

Former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a Sanders surrogate and African-American, rushed to the senator’s defense. He sympathetically described Sanders’ own racial blind spot that has hindered his efforts to reach black voters. “Sen. Sanders is from Burlington,” Jealous said. “He grew up in old Brooklyn, he knows white folks live in ghettos.”

Yet Jealous and Sanders both emphasized that the crux of the issue was poverty, not race. As an African-American fortunate enough to earn a bit of the American Dream, thanks to hard-working parents and a decent public school system, I, too, see poverty as a more urgent issue than race, although both are important.

Politically, as Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has written ever since his breakthrough 1978 book “The Declining Significance of Race,” the best way to build a multiracial anti-poverty consensus is to focus on class, not race.

Yet in today’s presidential cycle, we seem to be more interested in arguing about race and poverty than finding some common-ground solutions.

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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