Elizabeth Warren’s Unifying Race Narrative

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Warren talks about race better than any candidate, certainly any white candidate, we’ve seen for a long time.

Elizabeth Warren has been getting a lot of attention for her smart, creative policy proposals. She deserves praise for something else. Warren talks about race better than any candidate, certainly any white candidate, we’ve seen for a long time.

This is crucial because Trump once again will use racism to deflect attention from the real issues of class that are leaving Americans of all races so vulnerable. It’s also crucial because voters of color are still experiencing extreme whiplash in the aftermath of the abrupt transition from Obama to Trump—and expect a candidate who will keep faith with them. And Democrats need both blacks and whites to turn out, big-time.

The challenge is to define and narrate the top-down class war in today’s America in a way that bridges over race, while also acknowledging the more damaging impact on black Americans. Warren is just about pitch-perfect on that.

Here is Warren at Netroots Nation last August:

In Trump’s story, the reason why working families keep getting the short end of the stick isn’t because of the decisions he and his pals are making in Washington every day. No, according to Trump, the problem is other working people, people who are black, or brown, people born somewhere else …

It all adds up to the same thing—the politics of division. They want us pointing fingers at each other so that we won’t notice that their hands are in our pockets. That stops here. That stops now. We say, no, you will not divide us.

This was a superb message of common interest, and also a tacit warning to Democratic candidates tempted to make the election just about race. Here’s Warren again, addressing the December 2018 graduating class at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. Warren spoke movingly about the role of homeownership in building wealth for the white middle class and the brutal history of redlining against black neighborhoods, much of it actually required by the federal government. Then she said this:

Finally, during the 1960s, redlining was banned. And over the next 25 years or so, black families started building more wealth. The black-white wealth gap began to shrink. And that might have been the end of the story.

But in the 1990s, as more black families were buying homes and building wealth, big banks and sleazy mortgage lenders saw an opportunity. They targeted communities of color for the worst of the worst mortgages. And bank regulators, the guys who are supposed to work for the American people, looked the other way. The results were catastrophic. Black homeownership rates are now lower than they were when housing discrimination was legal. Today, the black-white wealth gap is bigger than it was back in the 1960s …

I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin. Rules matter, and our government—not just individuals within the government, but the government itself—has systematically discriminated against black people in this country.

Ultimately subprime mortgages spread far beyond communities of color, and it eventually wrecked our economy. During the crash of 2008, millions of people—black, white, Latino, and Asian—lost their homes. Millions lost their jobs. Millions lost their savings—millions, tens of millions, but not the people at the top. The bank CEOs just kept raking in the money.

Two sets of rules: one for the wealthy and the well connected. And one for everybody else. Two sets of rules: one for white families. And one for everybody else. That’s how a rigged system works. And that’s what we need to change.

So this brings me back to you. Everyone will tell you to work hard. Teachers. Parents. Coaches. And I agree. Under the rules of commencement speakers I am required to say, “Work hard.” And you should.

But I’m here with a bolder message: It’s time to change the rules. Let me say that again for those in the back. Change. The. Rules.

Lately, as Warren has rolled out one policy proposal after another, the racial message is the same. The rules are rigged against working families in general, and against families of color with special force.

Speaking at the Al Sharpton–sponsored National Action Network in early April, Warren brilliantly talked about day care and its crucial role in her own life as a young working mother, but then flagged the special importance of high-quality and affordable day care to black families—where mothers are more likely to be in the workforce and kids are more likely to be at risk. And then she tied that to the lousy pay of child-care workers, who are of course disproportionately workers of color:

It’s the legacy of decades of systemic discrimination against black women. Discrimination in pay. Discrimination in housing. Discrimination in finance. Discrimination in health care. Pile all that together, then make high-quality child care expensive and hard to find, and it’s little wonder that child care—or the lack of good child care—holds back one generation after another in communities of color.

Warren, in subsequent speeches, went on to address such issues as maternal health and student debt, always taking care to point out that inadequate policies and rigged rules harm working families generally and families of color disproportionately.

This has all been noted, and is getting rave reviews among local and national black leaders. It will help Warren gain traction in the Southern primaries, where the strategy of Kamala Harris is to come on strong and come on early. Even better, it’s a message of solidarity that all Americans need to hear.

But before Warren admirers break out the champagne at Warren as racial healer and racial unifier, consider the other side of the divide. That would be white working-class voters who defected to Trump.

According to a recent CNN matchup poll of Trump versus possible Democrats among white voters without college degrees (the usual pollster definition of the white working class), here’s the matchup:

Trump +13% over Biden
Trump +15% over Buttigieg
Trump +16% over O’Rourke
Trump +17% over Sanders
Trump +28% over Harris
Trump +34% over Warren
Trump +37% over Clinton ’16

The poll could reflect the chronic misogyny so prevalent among white working-class voters, though it’s odd that white working-class voters were friendlier to Kamala Harris, who identifies as African American, and to Pete Buttigieg, who is gay. Or it may be the preachy style that Warren detractors keep citing (which in fact Warren has vastly improved on).

But for this white daughter of working-class Oklahoma, a self-made gal who lived the American dream the hard way, and whose three brothers all went into the military, here’s the irony: Reaching the white working class, which has been so betrayed by Trump, and which would so benefit from a Warren presidency, could be a harder climb than reaching the black working class.

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