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Prominent women of color are putting 2020 candidates on the spot. Warren and Harris shined.

The two senators won over crowds at the first-ever policy forum for women of color on Wednesday.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend “She The People” Forum In Houston
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) waves to a crowd at the She The People Presidential Forum at Texas Southern University on April 24, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
Sergio Flores/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris received standing ovations from the audience at a forum on Wednesday dedicated to women of color — clearly emerging as favored candidates among some in an increasingly important Democratic primary voting bloc.

Both lawmakers tied their policy proposals on issues including housing, criminal justice and equal pay to longstanding racial inequities, an approach that some Democrats have been criticized for failing to take in the past.

“We have a real problem in the criminal justice system and it’s a race problem, and we need to address it head-on,” Warren said at She the People, the first forum to center on the policy priorities of women of color in Houston, Texas. “Study after study shows that African Americans, more than whites, are more likely to be arrested, to be arraigned, to be taken to trial, to be wrongfully convicted and to be given harsher sentences. We need reform of that system from the very beginning.”

Harris, too, spoke in depth about the war on drugs and how crackdowns on marijuana “led disproportionately to the criminalization of black and brown young men in this country.” She committed to pardoning low-level drug offenders if she were elected to the presidency, and expressed support for legalizing marijuana, a position that she’s been criticized for opposing before.

“We know that this is a system, in particular around the criminalization of drug use and possession that has been infected by racial bias and we have to speak truth to that,” she said, calling out the fact that the opioid epidemic is framed as a public health crisis, while the crack epidemic wasn’t.

The forum attracted a number of 2020 hopefuls, including Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar as well as former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, opened the event by emphasizing exactly why prioritizing women of color will be important for this election cycle. “One of five voters in primaries are women of color,” she said. “And we are 25 percent of voters in key swing states of Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida [and] Arizona.”

In several recent elections, African American women, especially, played a decisive role in Democratic victories.

Warren managed to tie her policies directly back to systemic racial problems

MSNBC correspondent Garrett Haake talked to roughly 20 attendees who called out Warren as having one of the most impressive performances at the forum followed by Harris and Booker.

Warren seemed to impress by describing multiple policy proposals in race-specific ways. While outlining her housing plan, she highlighted how systemic issues like redlining, a policy that boosted subsidized housing for white residents and not black ones, has prevented African Americans from accruing wealth.

“Across this country, homeownership has been the number one way families build wealth. ... For decades and decades, the federal government subsidized the purchase of housing for white people. For black people, they discriminated against them,” she said. “Generation after generation, that’s been a huge driver of the black-white wealth gap.”

She then traced its legacy all the way to the subprime mortgage crisis just over a decade ago, noting that once African American and Latino communities did build up more wealth, banks targeted them.

Warren’s housing plan would aim to address part of this disparity, adding three million new housing units in the US, and giving particular aid to individuals affected by redlining. “A core part of that plan says that everybody who lives or lived in a formerly redlined district can get some housing assistance now, to be able to buy a home,” she said.

Harris’s remarks, meanwhile, spoke to her experiences on the Senate Intel and Judiciary committees, and highlighted how race factored into her work. She called out Russian interference in the 2016 election, and how misinformation shared by trolls was explicitly designed to sow discord on the issue of race.

“They decided to target our vulnerabilities and they exposed America’s Achilles heel. You know the issue they kept bringing up because they know it would cause heat and dissension among us? Race,” she said. “What we’ve always known as a civil rights issue has become a national security issue.”

Harris also sought to highlight an immigration agenda that repudiates policies established by the Trump administration, such as family separations. “We need a president that will pass comprehensive immigration reform,” she said. “I will be a president of the United States to keep our word to the DREAMERs that we gave DACA protections to.”

Harris’s strong performance at the forum could bode well for her candidacy: She’s polled consistently well with women of color (though she still comes in behind the two overall frontrunners, Biden and Sanders), and they’re seen as crucial for her success in the Democratic primary.

One other issue both Warren and Harris spoke about was the staggering gap in maternal mortality rates between black women and white women.

Black women are three to four times more likely to die from childbirth in the US than white women, and Harris and Warren both have plans they’ve developed to address this issue explicitly. Harris has introduced a bill that includes funding on bias training for doctors and nurses, while Warren said Wednesday that she’d levy financial penalties on hospitals that do not reduce black maternal mortality rates.

“The best studies I’ve seen put it down to one thing: prejudice,” Warren said. “Doctors and nurses don’t hear African American women’s medical issues the same way that they heard the same things from white women and we’ve got to change that.”

The audience was a tough crowd — particularly for Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long been dogged by a reputation of poor outreach to black voters, got a bit more pushback from the audience, especially after a series of vague answers and a particularly meandering one on the issue of white nationalism.

While Sanders repeatedly said there needed to be policies dedicated to addressing institutional racism and workplace discrimination, he struggled to point to one of his specific proposals that would tackle such issues explicitly and instead highlighted how his plans, including one for free college, would benefit many people across different backgrounds. Sanders did, however, emphasize the need for immigration reform and the need to enshrine protections for DACA recipients.

When asked about the federal government’s role in shutting down white nationalists, Sanders began his response by directly addressing Trump’s demagoguery, and pivoted to promote some of his banner policy ideas like Medicare-for-all, noting that these efforts would tackle racial disparities. His shift in messaging, however, prompted moderators Allison and MSNBC’s Joy Reid to press him on a follow-up. And when they did, he framed the response with an anecdote about his background advocating for civil rights, eliciting some audience outcry.

“I actually was at the March on Washington with Dr. King back in 1963,” Sanders said to audible groans from the audience. “As somebody who actively supported Jesse Jackson’s campaign, as one of the few elected officials to do so in ’88, I have dedicated my life to racism and sexism and discrimination of all forms. ... If somebody wants to go around perpetrating hate crimes, that person will pay a very, very heavy price, indeed.”

Every candidate was asked why they’d be the best option for women of color, and several, including Sanders, cited their track records as evidence that they would back policies that factor in race and gender inequities. This exchange perhaps best illustrated some of the tension that seems to exist for some women of color as they evaluate Sanders’s candidacy.

Sanders paused for a moment before responding to the question, during which an audience member yelled “he don’t know.”

“Look at my record and look at what I campaigned on,” he said. “Four years ago, it was not a popular idea to suggest that health care for all was a right, not a privilege. Today, that concept is seeping through, all over this country.” Policies like Medicare-for-all, for example, would disproportionately benefit African Americans, who are uninsured at a higher rate than white Americans.

As this exchange and the rest of Wednesday’s event made clear, some candidates are beginning to establish strong bases with women of color, by identifying how policy proposals would directly affect them. Others, meanwhile, still could stand to refine that message.

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