Elizabeth Warren isn’t running for president, but she can still make a splash. On Sunday, it was with a full-throated speech on racial inequality and police violence, seemingly aimed at Black Lives Matter and its supporters. Structured around three kinds of discrimination—economic, policing, and voting—Warren gave a capsule history of black American civil rights struggles and emphasized the degree to which they’re unfinished. “We must be honest,” she said. “Fifty years after John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out, violence against African Americans has not disappeared.”
In doing so, Warren used the language of the movement (“hands up, don’t shoot”), praised it as a “new generation of civil rights leaders,” and staked herself to its policy goals. “Policing must become a truly community endeavor,” said Warren, echoing the Campaign Zero proposal pushed by one group of Black Lives Matter activists that would seek to reform police practices. “Police forces should look like, and come from, the neighborhoods they serve,” she said. “All police forces—not just some—must be trained to de-escalate and to avoid the likelihood of violence. Body cameras can help us know what happens when someone is hurt.”
Later in the speech, Warren called for a “restoration” of the Voting Rights Act and updated rules around voting, including automatic registration, a national voting holiday, and an end to felon disenfranchisement. She ended the speech on a familiar note. “We need less talk and more action about reducing unemployment, ending wage stagnation, and closing the income gap between white and nonwhite workers,” she said. “And one more issue, dear to my heart: It’s time to come down hard on predatory practices that allow financial institutions to systematically strip wealth out of communities of color.”
For all the clarity and force of Warren’s speech, one thing stands out: the extent to which her ideas and emphasis are now mainstream, at least for Democrats. We’re accustomed to seeing Warren as a left-wing leader in the Democratic Party, but here, she’s echoing the consensus. Since the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri—after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown following a confrontation with police officer Darren Wilson—prominent Democrats have voiced sympathy and support for the movement of young black activists that emerged out of the protests. “We cannot ignore the inequities that persist in our justice system,” said Hillary Clinton in the weeks after Ferguson. “Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers instead of the other way around.”
Clinton returned to this territory again this year, as an official presidential candidate, with speeches on criminal justice and voting rights. “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she said in an April address on prison reform. “There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes.” Likewise, in a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston, she called for expanding voting rights. “I believe every citizen has the right to vote. And I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote.”
But Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic primary, wasn’t alone in aligning herself on the side of activists. After protesters confronted presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders on criminal justice this summer, they responded with ambitious plans on reforming the prison system and improving policing. Sanders went further, releasing a broad blueprint for “racial justice” that tries to address “physical violence” against black Americans as well as political disenfranchisement and “economic violence.” “Communities of color also face the violence of economic deprivation,” Sanders says in a post on his website. “Let’s be frank: neighborhoods like those in west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray resided, suffer the most.”
For many Americans, this rhetoric might be seen as divisive. For Democrats, however, it makes sense. Without the support of black voters, the party can’t hold the White House and loses its shot at reclaiming the Senate. By embracing criminal justice reform—which, thanks to public apathy, is newly “safe” for all politicians to touch—Democrats can build concrete ties with black communities and leaders who want clear commitments from the party. What’s more, with violent crime on the decline, this rhetoric doesn’t fracture bonds with Democratic voters who tend to support “tough-on-crime” stances, from suburban whites to many black Americans.
What does it mean for Democrats to have a consensus? The short answer is that, if elected president, a Democrat will pursue appointments, policies, and regulations to achieve criminal justice reform. President Bernie Sanders won’t just nominate anyone for attorney general—he’ll find someone with an interest and expertise in civil rights. Likewise, he’ll likely strengthen—or at least maintain—the civil rights division of the Justice Department and put racial justice on the agenda for relevant federal agencies.
With that said, Democrats and Black Lives Matter still aren’t fully simpatico on racial inequality. In her speech, Warren went beyond criminal justice and voting rights—places of broad agreement among liberals and the public—to attack the racist housing policies that sustained segregation through the 20th century, and continue to shape present patterns and outcomes:
The 2008 housing collapse destroyed trillions in family wealth across the country, but the crash hit African Americans like a punch in the gut. Because middle-class black families’ wealth was disproportionately tied up in homeownership and not other forms of savings, these families were hit harder by the housing collapse. But they also got hit harder because of discriminatory lending practices—yes, discriminatory lending practices in the 21st century.
“Entire legal structures were created to prevent African Americans from building economic security through home ownership,” continued Warren. “Legally enforced segregation. Restrictive deeds. Redlining. Land contracts. Coming out of the Great Depression, America built a middle class, but systematic discrimination kept most African American families from being part of it.”
All of this is true, and in sketching this history, Warren goes far further than most politicians. Her solutions, however, fall short. “We need less talk and more action about reducing unemployment, ending wage stagnation, and closing the income gap between white and nonwhite workers,” she says. For Democrats, these are valuable policies. But they’re not enough to reduce segregation or help black Americans build wealth—not just increase income. That needs more work at all levels of government, and modest efforts aside, it’s not clear the Democratic Party is up to the task.
Most Americans want equality under the law. But not everyone wants integration, or even a world where segregation is discouraged. Even liberal Americans—like these affluent Brooklyn residents who oppose new school zoning—can take a sharp reactionary turn when it’s time to integrate their schools and neighborhoods.
Democrats want to reduce racial inequality, but they also want to win elections. Despite real progress, those goals are still in conflict.