Elizabeth Warren Sets The Bar On Race For 2016 Presidential Candidates

She isn't running, but Warren is the only one saying the words we should be hearing from candidates.

Elizabeth Warren is on fire. 

In a Sunday speech discussing racial inequality in the U.S., the Democratic senator from Massachusetts called for police reform, a recommitment to voting rights and economic policies that will help black families become upwardly mobile. 

“We have made important strides forward. But we are not done yet. And now, it is our time,” she said. “I speak today with the full knowledge that I have not personally experienced and can never truly understand the fear, the oppression and the pain that confronts African Americans every day. But none of us can ignore what is happening in this country. Not when our black friends, family, neighbors literally fear dying in the streets.”

In many ways, Warren’s speech served as a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement (she's even met with DeRay Mckesson in the days since to discuss race issues). Using the history of racial violence as a thread, her speech connected current calls for justice to the civil rights movement and noted that Black Lives Matter is addressing modern incarnations of long-standing issues on which the country hasn't made quite enough progress.

Warren made the connection between state violence and the history of racism in the U.S. more clearly than any of the 2016 candidates -- a crucial point, considering that the matter has become a campaign issue. During her speech, Warren addressed three points: violence, voting and economic justice. She began with police brutality -- and recalled the violence inflicted on civil rights activists in the 1960s:

Fifty years later, violence against African Americans has not disappeared. Consider law enforcement. The vast majority of police officers sign up so they can protect their communities. They are part of an honorable profession that takes risks every day to keep us safe. We know that. But we also know -- and say -- the names of those whose lives have been treated with callous indifference. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. We’ve seen sickening videos of unarmed, black Americans cut down by bullets, choked to death while gasping for air -- their lives ended by those who are sworn to protect them. Peaceful, unarmed protesters have been beaten.

On voting rights, Warren spoke in favor of automatic registration: 

Voting should be simple. Voter registration should be automatic. Get a driver’s license, get registered automatically. Non-violent, law-abiding citizens should not lose the right to vote because of a prior conviction. Election Day should be a holiday, so no one has to choose between a paycheck and a vote. Early voting and vote by mail would give fast food and retail workers who don’t get holidays day off a chance to proudly cast their votes. The hidden discrimination that comes with purging voter rolls and short-staffing polling places must stop. 

She then made her way to explaining that economic inequality does not fall evenly across racial lines: 

Our task will not be complete until we ensure that every family -- regardless of race -- has a fighting chance to build an economic future for themselves ... We need less talk and more action about reducing unemployment, ending wage stagnation and closing the income gap between white and nonwhite workers.

Warren’s honest commentary on the state of black America differs vastly from 2016 Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In part, this could be because she is not running for president and doesn't need to appease voters who may have a more conservative stance on the issues affecting the black community than her Massachusetts base. 

Here’s where the actual 2016 candidates stand on the issues:

Bernie Sanders

When Black Lives Matter activists interrupted the Netroots Nation convention, the largest annual meeting of progressives in the U.S., in July, they demanded that Democratic candidates acknowledge that “the most important and urgent issue of our day is structural violence and systemic racism that is oppressing and killing black women, men and children,” wrote Tia Oso, the woman who took the stage during the protest.

While O'Malley outright fumbled (more on this below), Sanders talked over the protesters, countered their concerns with his history as a civil rights activist and stuck to his script. "Essentially, he appeared to be arguing that economics and class trump all," Joe Dinkin wrote for The Nation. "For an audience mourning the death of Sandra Bland, a woman who was arrested at a traffic stop on the way to her new job before mysteriously dying in police custody, the jobs program Sanders suggested just didn’t seem like a sufficient answer." Bridging the wealth gap has been at the forefront of Democratic presidential candidates’ campaigns. But an understanding that fixing economic inequality (which is radically different for black folks than it is for whites) won't prevent a cop from seeing a black person as a threat has not. 

Three days later, however, Sanders' tune was different. He made an outright acknowledgement of police brutality and condemned the “totally outrageous police behavior” in the Sandra Bland arrest video in a statement: 

No one should be yanked from her car, thrown to the ground, assaulted and arrested for a minor traffic stop. The result is that three days later she is dead in her jail cell. This video highlights once again why we need real police reform. People should not die for a minor traffic infraction. This type of police abuse has become an all-too-common occurrence for people of color and it must stop.

One thing hurting Sanders' tackling of racial issues is that he had to be forced out of seeing racial inequality as a symptom of economic inequality. And later that month, Sanders retreated to his old habits on NBC’s "Meet The Press:" 

My view is that we have got to deal with the fact that the middle class in this country is disappearing, that we have millions of people working for wages that are much too low impacts everybody, impacts the African American community even more. Those are issues that do have to be dealt with, and just at the same time as we deal with institutional racism.

On voting rights, Sanders made a simple statement during a NAACP rally this month:

It's just simply cowardly that these governors and legislatures are making it harder for poor people, for elderly people and people of color to participate in our political process. 

Martin O'Malley

O’Malley, who was criticized for saying “all lives matter” when activists interrupted him at Netroots, later acknowledged the historical relationship between the racism and police violence. But he didn't mention the "zero tolerance" policing methods he implemented as mayor of Baltimore. 

The reality is that racial injustice and law enforcement in America have been painfully intertwined since the first days of our nation. If we are to have any hope of improving police and community relations in America -- for our own sakes and for the sakes of our children and grandchildren -- these measures of professional policing must be open and visible for all to see.

O’Malley’s policies were, at one point, praised by white and black Baltimoreans -- until his second term. Complaints of police harassment rose after this NYPD-inspired attempt at being tough on crime. In 2006, The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed a lawsuit against the city's police department claiming that officers were illegally arresting people in Baltimore’s poor, predominantly black neighborhoods for minor offenses such as loitering or public urination. The city settled the suit in 2010, but it's worth noting that West Baltimore, which includes Freddie Gray's neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, is still home to over half of all people released from Maryland's prison system each year.

On voting rights, O'Malley's strongest comment is a rather mild statement emailed to CNN last month:

Last year, Republican state legislators in 29 states introduced more than 80 restrictive bills to require a photo ID, make voter registration harder, or reduce early voting. We know why they're doing this: because Americans without a photo ID are disproportionately low-income, disabled, minority -- and Democratic.

Despite having been mayor of a predominantly black and very poor city, when O'Malley released a sweeping criminal justice platform in July, he merely alluded to the racial wealth gap:

As a nation, we must strive to remove barriers to full participation in the social, economic, and political life of our nation, once and for all. Legal equality is absolutely necessary but not sufficient -- we must strive for equal opportunity and a fair shot for everyone. That means helping to ensure good jobs that provide stable incomes; universal, high-quality childcare; affordable housing and homeownership; and greater equity in our education and health care systems -- for all Americans.

 Hillary Clinton

In 1996, then-first lady Hillary Clinton defended the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act that President Bill Clinton signed into law in two years earlier. 

The democratic front-runner has been accused of trying to cozy up to parts of the Black Lives Matter movement. But her role in facilitating mass incarceration by supporting tough-on-crime initiatives has made it difficult for many activists to trust her.

Clinton dedicated the first major address of her campaign, in May, to the most visceral issue facing the country right now -- but she had her kid gloves on.

We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down as far as it has in many of our communities.

In another move that could be seen as an attempt to sweep her past under the rug, Clinton evoked "Souls to the Polls" drives, where black people vote en masse after church services in a June speech. While highlighting a black American tradition is phenomenal, Clinton still hasn't offered any concrete suggestions on how to roll back voter disenfranchisement. 

We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people from one end of our country to the other ... If families coming out of church on Sunday are inspired to go vote, they should be free to do just that.

During a Facebook Q&A in July, Clinton decried the idea that the root of racial inequality is economic in response to Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery. 

We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day.

Tari Ngangura screams into a microphone during a Black Lives Matter protest
Tari Ngangura screams into a microphone during a Black Lives Matter protest

It’s clear that Warren is looking at economic issues more structurally, which isn't surprising considering her history with financial reform. She proposed and set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency that protects civilians from shady financial institutions  -- which have a fairly extensive history of redlining, selling homes to black people at inflated rates and then evicting them when they could not pay.

On Sunday, she said:

It’s time to come down hard on predatory practices that allow financial institutions to systematically strip wealth out of communities of color. One of the ugly consequences of bank deregulation was that there was no cop on the beat when too many financial institutions figured out that they could make great money by tricking, trapping and defrauding targeted families. Now we have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and we need to make sure it stays strong and independent so that it can do its job and make credit markets work for black families, Latino families, white families -- all families.

Sanders and O'Malley have released sweeping campaign platforms tackling these issues and all three candidates have spoken with activists within the movement. But they still have a long way to go. Video of Clinton’s private meeting with Black Lives Matter activists showed her defending her husband’s tough-on-crime initiatives and, some said, addressing the activists in a condescending tone. Sanders told a crowd in Portland to chant “We Stand Together” if Black Lives Matter activists tried to interrupt the event. And, overall, O’Malley hasn’t had much to say about the state of Black America.

Warren’s boldness on these issues sets her apart. But it is important to note that Warren is a new politician: she doesn't have a questionable history on these issues because she hasn't yet had to take a stance on these issues. Though she is not running for president, current candidates should take note of her candor and incorporate it into their campaign strategies. 

“This is the reality all of us must confront, as uncomfortable and ugly as that reality may be," Warren said. "It comes to us to once again affirm that black lives matter, that black citizens matter, that black families matter.”