LONG GROVE, Iowa — After bounding atop a blue trailer in a community park, Bernie Sanders quickly reminded people here that Iowa had helped elect the nation’s first black president.
The next step, he said, is addressing racial discrimination and the recent shootings of unarmed blacks by law enforcement.
“I know that I speak for all of you that we are sick and tired of reading about and seeing videos of unarmed African-Americans being shot,” Sanders said Sunday at a Democratic picnic. “We know that if those individuals were white, the odds are very strong that would not have happened to them.”
During three days of campaigning before largely white audiences in Iowa, the Democratic presidential candidate repeatedly vowed to address racism, police brutality and the nation’s criminal justice system. It followed disruptions of the senator’s appearances in Phoenix and Portland, Oregon, by Black Lives Matter protesters who say his message to cure economic inequality fails to address institutional racism.
Sanders, who represents predominantly white Vermont, has become Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination but lagged behind the former secretary of state in building a coalition resembling the diverse voting bloc that twice elected Obama.
His message has focused heavily on middle-class economics, climate change and creating a single-payer health care system. But in a sign that he wants to diversify his support, Sanders has held events with black and Hispanic groups and made clear during appearances in Iowa that overcoming racial divisions would be a staple of his agenda.
At the Wing Ding fundraiser, a high-profile gathering of Democrats in northern Iowa, Sanders rattled off the names of shooting victims in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere. “On and on that list goes! That has got to end,” Sanders said.
At the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, Sanders thanked the state’s electorate “for their courage in voting for Obama in 2008. What you showed is that a state which is mostly white could go beyond the color of a candidate’s skin and vote for somebody based on their character and their ideas.”
During Sunday’s picnic, Sanders said the country should be proud that it had become a “less discriminatory society” but said racism remains a major problem “that together we must overcome.”
When the Senate returns from its summer recess, Sanders said he plans to introduce legislation that would address the role of private corporations in the nation’s prison system. He frequently criticizes corporations that profit from the rise in the nation’s prison population, especially involving young black men.
The website BuzzFeed reported this weekend that Sanders’ campaign reached out to the Black Lives Matter protest group to set up a meeting and apologized that “it took our campaign so long” to connect with leaders of the movement.
In an interview Sunday with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sanders said the note was “sent out by a staffer, not by me” and without the senator’s knowledge. He said he didn’t think it was necessary to apologize to the protesters.