Winning black female voters? On Thursday night in Atlanta, Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed she has a plan for that.
The Massachusetts senator has built a top-tier campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination largely by gathering support from progressive whites. But the contours of her new approach — and the preparation that went into it — was apparent well before Warren took the stage at Clark-Atlanta University.
Prominent black women were on hand to vouch for Warren’s commitment to their priorities. They included Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts congresswoman and rising Democratic star, and Angela Peoples, an organizer who gained fame after she was photographed at the 2017 Women’s March holding a sign saying, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Both have endorsed Warren for president.
The 70-year-old white woman also shook up her routine.
Instead of walking onstage to the usual tune from Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Warren’s campaign blared “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul. The senator then delivered a soaring speech that connected parable to policy and, in the process, made one of the strongest appeals to black voters of any Democratic White House hopeful during the 2020 primary.
It was no accident that she delivered her remarks in Atlanta, considered the capital of black America.
Her speech focused on the story of the city’s black washerwomen’s strike of 1881, when thousands of women — including some less than a generation out of slavery —walked off the job seeking higher wages and more dignity. They were later joined by white washerwomen who saw a shared struggle, and their protest became an example for other African Americans working in domestic and service roles.
That little-known history formed the building blocks for the case Warren is now pitching to Democratic voters — including white Americans wondering how a push to right historic wrongs could threaten their quality of life.
“To this day, racism still whispers the convenient lie to some white people that if your life has problems, you should blame ‘them’ — people who don’t look like you,” she warned. “The wealthy and well-connected want us to believe that more for your neighbors will always mean less for you. But the truth is, when we come together, we can all move forward.”
The evening’s celebratory atmosphere was its own testimony to the rising power and influence of black female voters. It underscored the role that black women are playing in Warren’s campaign: in the audience, among her staff, even the female DJ spinning a playlist featuring Beyoncé, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill.
Warren’s remarks were the culmination of months of conversations with black female activists and a testament to her growth as a white progressive woman. In closed-door discussions, Warren listened as those activists laid out their agenda for the next president of the United States: reparations for slavery, environmental and reproductive justice, ending cash bail, addressing systemic and institutional racism.
On Thursday, their priorities became hers.
“America was founded on principles of liberty and built on the backs of enslaved people,” Warren declared in a remark hardly imaginable in a pre-Barack Obama presidential cycle. “The federal government helped create the racial divide in this country through decades of active, state-sponsored discrimination, and that means the federal government has an obligation to fix it.”
Among the deepest fault lines in Democratic politics exposed since 2016 is the rift between the black women who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and the white women who did not, voting either for Donald Trump or staying home. Headed into 2020, many black women wonder whether white women will make a different choice — a dynamic that has, in part, fueled skepticism toward Warren’s candidacy.
She positioned herself in Atlanta as an ally not just asking for black votes, but also vowing to govern in part according to their concerns.
This week’s debate featured a conversation among candidates about who is best positioned to build a broad coalition and unify the country after the election. Warren presented a new argument: that the key to the Democratic nomination and to victory in November is not a unifying candidate but a unified electorate.
The speech came at a crossroads in the 2020 campaign, on the day after yet another debate that left many voters still trying to discern who is best positioned to beat Trump next fall. So far, the distinction has gone to former Vice President Joe Biden, with Democrats — and black voters, in particular — putting their faith in him to avert their worst fears.
Using the examples of fearless black women who fought to perfect American democracy, Warren told the crowd Thursday that fear will not be the way forward in 2020.
“Yes, there’s a lot at stake in this election, and I know people are scared,” she said, her voice reaching a crescendo over the roaring crowd. “But the washerwomen were not afraid. I am not afraid. And you can’t be afraid, either.”
With the most diverse field of candidates ever running in the 2020 Democratic primary, the potential to make history abounds — including for Warren, who could become the country’s first female president. But as voters, especially African Americans, process the campaign, there is more at stake for them than making history.
For black voters, the pragmatic calculation in considering the nominee comes down to two main questions: Do you speak to me? And can you win?
So far, there’s no empirical evidence that Warren has answered those questions for them. But if she does, it could well be because she told the story of a group of bold, black women, to a gymnasium full of black women, on a Thursday night in November.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Errin Haines has covered race and politics for the AP since 2015.