Op-Ed

In New York, 2020 Democrats Offer a Range of Views on Racial Justice

For a two-hour stretch in a packed Times Square hotel ballroom on Friday morning, the full spectrum of the Democratic Party’s stances on racism and racial justice was on display.

Kamala Harris, the California senator who is seeking to become the first black woman to be elected president, electrified the crowd by declaring that when — not if — she’s elected president she would sign a bill to study reparations for black Americans.

“This is an inflection moment in the history of our country,” Ms. Harris said. “This is a moment of time where we must restore the significance of truth and justice in this country.”

John Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said they would also support such a bill. Mr. Hickenlooper’s backing showed how even the most moderate members of the Democratic Party have now adopted the explicit language of racial justice activists, and how the issue of reparations continues to roil the 2020 Democratic primary in ways that few could predict.

“Slavery is the nagging shame of America,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “We must own our past and acknowledge the ongoing consequences of enslaving an entire race of people.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also addressed a group that included civil rights activists and black religious leaders.

“We must take on the disparity within the disparity, the racial disparities which exist in this country, which are growing wider and wider,” Mr. Sanders said.

The candidates appeared at the annual conference of the National Action Network, the advocacy group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, which has become an essential event for Democrats seeking higher office. For the candidates, it was a prime opportunity to speak directly to an influential segment of the black voting bloc that will be a force in next year’s presidential primaries, particularly in early voting states such as South Carolina.

In addition to Ms. Harris, Mr. Hickenlooper, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, the early slate of the conference included speeches from Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator who declined to run for president, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman House member from New York who instantly made an impact on Capitol Hill.

“We can’t sit around for 100 years while the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful and everyone else falls further and further behind,” said Ms. Warren, who used her speech to back another progressive policy idea: the elimination of the Senate filibuster.

Ms. Warren has sought to boost a campaign that has struggled with fund-raising by proposing an expansive policy agenda. On Friday she tried to position her ambitious filibuster position as essential, because Republicans would block most progressive legislation aimed at closing the racial wealth gap.

“We can’t sit around for 100 years while climate change destroys our planet, while corruption pervades every nook and cranny of Washington, and while too much of a child’s fate in life still rests on the color of their skin,” Ms. Warren said. “Enough with that.”

Ms. Harris, who enjoyed an assumed kinship with the audience because of her identity and historic candidacy, said she would double the size of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and focus on white nationalist domestic terrorism. The most liberal candidates, including Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, focused their speeches on structural injustices, and how a progressive president could use the power of the federal government to improve historically distressed communities.

The roster of candidates was a who’s who of prominent Democrats, and similarly powerful figures were scheduled to speak later in the day. Presidential candidates from the Senate, including Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, participated in an afternoon forum with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Earlier in the week, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke both of Texas also spoke to the largely black audience.

“Let’s call it like it is,’’ Mr. Booker said. “Right now in America, we’ve come to the distraught present that there are more black men under criminal supervision in our country than all the slaves of 1850.”

But it was Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected representative who has become a leader of the party’s progressive faction and a favorite target of conservatives, who received a hero’s welcome before her remarks. She framed the fight against racism as more than a byproduct of modern political polarization, but a struggle baked into the American story that must be prioritized. She invoked the anniversary on Thursday of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the crowd roared in approval.

“I find so much of this present moment to be a picking up, a revival, of where King left off,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said, before being played off to James Brown. “Bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia are the easiest ways to distract from substantive discussions of classism.”


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