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Ben Jealous argues for Bernie Sanders

Former president and CEO of the NAACP joins Rachel Maddow to discuss his pick in the Democratic primary race

There has been some confusion about statements made by Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, on his February 10 appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. Here is the video clip and text transcript of that night's appearance.

MADDOW: In the Democratic presidential field, as the two Democratic candidates are about to leave states where the electorate was 91 percent and 93 percent white respectively, they're headed into much more diverse states. The Democratic candidates now are fighting tooth and nail not only to try to appeal to minority voters and specifically to African-American Democratic voters, they are fighting very specifically for the endorsement of leaders within the black community.

One of those leaders who chose to plight his troth with Bernie Sanders is the former president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous. He's the youngest ever leader of that organization. Today in Harlem when Bernie Sanders was there having breakfast with the Reverend Al Sharpton, at a nearby table, there was Ben Jealous having breakfast with Senator Sanders' very nice wife, Jane.

Ben Jealous joins us now.

Ben, thank you very much for being here.

BEN JEALOUS, FORMER NAACP PRESIDENT: Absolutely. Good to see you.

MADDOW: How was breakfast?

JEALOUS: It was great. I’d forgotten about Paul. He’s such a nightmare.

MADDOW: Didn’t he once say the NAACP in Maine, or did he mean NAACP nationally should kiss his –

JEALOUS: I think he meant nationally. I think he meant nationally.

He reminds you that historically, in like the 1920s, Maine was second only to Georgia for the concentration of the Ku Klux Klan. The funny thing is they were trying to actually keep – not so funny, tragic, but in his case, ironic – keep Catholics out.

MADDOW: French Canadians.

JEALOUS: There are only two groups that we know of that still exist that were fighting the Klan on behalf of French Catholics and like him, it’s the Knights of Columbus and the NAACP of Maine.

MADDOW: Wow. That’s an amazing history.

JEALOUS: I would like for him to say thank you before he steps down.

MADDOW: Well, before he steps down is sort of question there.


MADDOW: Given – you are a smart guy, and I say that with some pride, because we went to school together. We’ve known each other a long time. I know you look at things in a big picture, historical, historically inflected way.

But you look at things like that, look at the swath of American history and where we are as a country, do you feel like in the Democratic presidential race right now, you're kind of spoiled for choice? Was it a difficult decision?

JEALOUS: It was not hard at all.

MADDOW: You feel like there's such a clear distinction, you feel like Bernie Sanders would be good and Hillary Clinton would be bad?

JEALOUS: Here's the thing. If Liz Warren was running, it would be much easier because we could get a real progressive and we could get our first woman president and both those things are big deals.

But the reality is that for me, as somebody who grew up in the first generation in the mass incarceration era, there's nothing more important than actually getting things shifted so we stop spending so much money on prison and we start spending it on education so our kids when they're 18, they don't have to choose essentially, you know, one of three roles in our society. You can go to prison, you can go to college and be deeply in debt, or you can do neither but still not get the college degree because you can't afford it.

MADDOW: I feel like when I hear Hillary Clinton talk about why she's running, and what she would do as president, she's making that same pitch now. I feel like her policy take on these issues right now is pretty similar to Senator Sanders'.

JEALOUS: And then you remember 2008 when there were seven Democrats on stage, and they were asked specifically about if we get rid of the disparity between crack and powder, which had sent so many black women to prison, disproportionately black women to prison, would you support applying it retroactively. These women can get out, and take care of their families, reunite, get their kids, get their kids out of foster care. Everybody said yes except for her. She said no.

And then you look this year, you have three Democrats on stage. One of them, Martin O’Malley abolished the death penalty state. One of them, Bernie Sanders, opposes it.

Now, mind you, things have shifted since 2008. Six governors, five plus Martin, had led their states in abolishing the death penalty and Hillary Clinton says, yes, I support the death penalty.

And so the concern is that on these issues, yes, she can get pushed to the left. As she started off this race, she was in support of for-profit prisons. Now she says she's against it. She took money from their lobby. Now she says she won't.

But the concern is, one, she can flip-flop, she can move. And two, she really sets her edge based on where the Republican Party is at the moment. Now, the Republican Party generally supports retroactivity. She does, too. But they're still for the death penalty, and so is she.

MADDOW: Because you're so drilled down on criminal justice issues –

JEALOUS: Sure, just as a distinction.

MADDOW: But Bernie Sanders on his website until recently bragged about the fact he was a supporter of the crime bill in the '90s.


MADDOW: And so, it's not like he's been an unwavering champions on this issue alone. He also shifted on this issue from the same position she was in.

JEALOUS: Well, again, shift from the '90s, I mean, you have to recall –

MADDOW: And was still campaigning on it recently.

JEALOUS: But let's be really clear, you have to recall that in the 1990s, most CBC members supported the 100 times disparity. Most CBC members voted for it. Everybody sort of lost their mind, there was so much urban violence, right?

And, I mean, not everybody, but lots of folks now who would like us to forget that they were for those bills.

2008. We're talking about retroactivity. 2016, she supports the death penalty. I don't want to – you know, look, I'm willing to say let's not hold any of her husband's bills against her. We’re talking about her own actions. And I'm also talking about her own words.

I mean, this is a woman who starts off, you know, starts off a supporter of Barry Goldwater, you say fine, that's her parents. Then she's a lawyer for the Black Panther Party.

MADDOW: She was in college, right. I mean –

JEALOUS: And Bernie in college was going to jail with the Congress of Racial Equality, all right?

MADDOW: All right. OK. It's fair enough, but –

JEALOUS: But hold on, but then you get to the '80s, she's chairing the children's defense fund. But in the '90s, she's pushing the superpredator theory.

The superpredator theory was, there were some children that were so sociopathic that by age 6 months they were beyond redemption. It's not just a violation of psychology, it's a violation of theology.

It was never used to explain the actions of, like, young white men in Columbine and those sorts of strategies. It was almost always used to explain the actions of young urban black men.

And so, it's that ability, how can you go from being at the side of Marian Wright Edelman to pushing the superpredator theory? I can't explain it. It confounds me.

And, with – I think for me as a movement person, it comes down to the trio that Martin Luther King referred to as the giant triplets of evil – racism, militarism, and greed. And when you go by that standard, what you see is Bernie Sanders has been very consistent in fighting racism. He's been very consistent in fighting stupid wars, whether it was, you know, Vietnam or it was Iraq. And he's been very consistent in fighting greed.

When you take those with Hillary, it gets confusing. It just gets confusing.

MADDOW: At the end of this, when there is a nominee, if it's Bernie Sanders obviously you're going to get what you want in terms of this endorsement. If it's Hillary Clinton, do you feel like this campaign will have pushed her to the kinds of policy positions that would make you comfortable with her as the Democratic Party nominee or would you abstain at that point?

JEALOUS: Look, you know, I'm somebody who supported Obama early on. Independent expenditure effort to try to help him win the early primary states because I wanted to see the black electorate fully engage, asking tough questions, getting competed for, not getting taken for granted.

And I find it offensive, quite frankly, when you see so many Hillary surrogates sort of implying they could take the black vote for granted. Our vote is precious to us. Only question in your family is, was it your mother or grandmother who fought for it?

And so, for them to say we're going to take it for granted when just as a country, forget about race for a second, we have the most indebted college students we've ever seen, we have the most incarcerated people on the planet. We have old people who are wondering what is the purpose of Social Security, because they're starving even though they're getting it, they’re getting $12,000 a year. There's no way to live on that.

We have parents who work, you know, 60 hours a week and still can't quite feed the kids and we have record numbers of school kids, backpacks packed for them to go home so they don't starve on the weekend.

And then you have people saying, oh, we as a party, we can't elect our idealists. We can't elect the ones who really want to change things so we actually open up opportunity.

The Republicans can do that. But if we're going to negotiate with them, we're not going to, you know, the sort of establishment says – well, why don't we send in somebody who will appease and be willing to compromise quickly? That's one theory.

My theory, trained as an organizer in Harlem at age 17, is game recognizes game. You send your idealists, we'll send our idealists, and a compromise will be a real compromise.

MADDOW: Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, endorsed Bernie Sanders to great calamity in the Democratic establishment when it happened. The game is on right now on these issues that you're fighting for right now.

Thank you for being here to talk about it, my friend.

JEALOUS: Good to see you.

MADDOW: Great to see you.

We'll be right back. Stay with us.

The full transcript of the February 10, 2016 episode of The Rachel Maddow Show can be found here.