By Astead W. Herndon– The New York Times
BALTIMORE — Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a commencement speech Friday at historically black Morgan State University, mixed her trademark language denouncng economic inequality with more explicit indictments of racial discrimination, giving what could be a preview of a possible appeal to black voters should she run for president.
The system is rigged, Ms. Warren said, but it’s particularly pitted against minority communities — and politicians must recognize those unique challenges and address them.
“Under the rules of commencement speakers I am required to say, ‘Work hard.’ And you should,” Ms. Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, said. “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.”
“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.”
With her remark, Ms. Warren was seeking to acknowledge differences between herself and the predominantly black audience. But her comment also comes after weeks of controversy about a DNA test that she took to prove her claims that she had Native American ancestry, a move that some have criticized as a mistaken embrace of the controversial field of racial science to rebut attacks over her heritage by President Trump and other Republicans.
The speech is the latest indication of how seriously Ms. Warren is taking outreach to black communities in preparation of a possible national campaign. Black voters play an outsized role in selecting the Democratic presidential nominee, particularly in Southern states like South Carolina and Georgia where black populations make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate.
Ms. Warren’s brand of unabashed populism has sometimes come under fire from liberals who say it fails to account for how things like racism and discrimination interact with income equality. Bernie Sanders, the populist who sought the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, was trounced by his more centrist opponent, Hillary Clinton, among minority voters and has frequently been criticized for clumsy mistakes on issues of race and identity.
The speech is the latest indication of how seriously Ms. Warren is taking outreach to black communities in preparation of a possible presidential campaign.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times
In this speech and during her time in the Senate, Ms. Warren attempted to make clear that she understands the intersections of race and injustice better than others on the left. Ms. Warren has also made sure to cultivate relationships with prominent black groups in Washington, including frequent check-ins with the leaders at the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Earlier this year in The Root, the black-focused digital outlet, Ms. Warren wrote an article about housing discrimination, in which she outlined the country’s history of racist housing practices against black Americans. She also impressed social justice activists this summer when, during an appearance at Dillard University, another historically black institution, she called the criminal justice system “racist” from “front to back,” drawing criticism from conservatives and centrists.
At Morgan State on Friday, Ms. Warren revived her pitch surrounding housing, telling a story about her mother’s struggles to keep her home and contrasting that with the barriers Americans face today.
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“The rules are rigged because the rich and powerful have bought and paid for too many politicians,” Ms. Warren said. “And if we dare to ask questions, they will try to divide us. Pit white working people against black and brown working people so they won’t band together and demand real change. The rich and powerful want us pointing fingers at each other so we won’t notice they are getting richer and more powerful.”
“Two sets of rules: one for the wealthy and the well-connected. And one for everybody else,” she said. “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.”
If any issue threatens to cloud the good will Ms. Warren has built among minority communities and leaders, it was her decision this year to take a DNA test to prove her claim of Native American ancestry. Ms. Warren found herself in the unusual position of being criticized by progressive leaders and Native American groups, who were angered that she seemed to embrace racial science. The issue has recently overwhelmed discussions of her presidential ambitions, but her supporters believe it can be overcome.
Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, called the criticism over the DNA test issue a distraction, and said Ms. Warren deserves credit as one of the nation’s leading voices on issues of racial justice, particularly among the likely candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
“There are people who have blind spots on these issues,” Mr. Johnson said. “I think many candidates have made mistakes in the past, but I don’t think she’s one of them.”