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Elizabeth Warren tackles race issues on road to potential presidential run

The Rev. Al Sharpton listened to Senator Elizabeth Warren last month. Sharpton says he was surprised by her ability to connect with black voters with her words and actions.
The Rev. Al Sharpton listened to Senator Elizabeth Warren last month. Sharpton says he was surprised by her ability to connect with black voters with her words and actions.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — A couple of weeks ago, the Rev. Al Sharpton answered the phone to hear Elizabeth Warren on the line.

“She said, ‘I want you to know, Reverend Al, what I’m doing with housing,’ ” Sharpton recalled.

Last week in the US Capitol, Warren stood with two members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they unveiled a House version of her legislation to build more housing and boost homeownership among minorities.

And Friday, Warren was the speaker at the winter commencement of Morgan State, a historically black university in Baltimore. Amid lingering questions about her claims to Native American ancestry, Warren acknowledged the contrast between the economic struggles faced by her white family and those faced by the mostly black graduates and their families before her.

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“We need to stop pretending the same doors open for everyone,” Warren said. “I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin.”

RELATED: Sanders and Warren acknowledge they’re both leaning toward running for president

That direct acknowledgment was aimed, in part, at the criticism Warren drew in October when she released a DNA test that showed a small amount of Native American blood in her family history. Far from settling the issue for Warren, the DNA result raised fraught questions about race, genetics, and identity that could hurt her chances among voters of color in a crowded Democratic primary that may include African-American candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

But as she presses on toward an increasingly likely bid for the presidency, Warren is taking on the issue of race directly, highlighting ties to black leaders and emphasizing her work on legislation that would probably appeal to black Democrats — a demographic crucial to her efforts to make inroads beyond her base of Massachusetts voters and white progressives around the country.

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“All of the folks running for office, Democrats in particular, will do themselves a favor to have a clear plan on how they’re going to address black voters,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a progressive racial justice organization. He has met with Warren at her request and said he was impressed by her focus on issues, such as discrimination, that matter to many black voters.

“She is going to have to figure out the staff and the people that she gets around her to ensure that the message that she’s putting out about policies and accountability doesn’t get lost in choices that could make her look out of step,” Robinson said.

Warren’s decision to identify herself as Native American during parts of her teaching career has long drawn taunts from President Trump and pointed questions from Democrats. But her attempt to clarify her heritage by showcasing a DNA test in a glossy video drew criticism from across the board, including from Native American groups who view such tests as exploitative, and others bothered by her decision to link a genetic test with ethnicity (Warren has not claimed membership in a tribe).

“Many black folks, to which the concept of ‘one drop’ and what is authentically black or not can be a very painful subject, and that is true for many people in the Native [American] community,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the progressive Center for Popular Democracy.

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But Epps-Addison does not view the decision to take and tout the DNA test as a “fatal wound” for Warren.

“I believe that Senator Warren is the type of person where she’s listening and reflective of the feedback she’s seen,” Epps-Addison said.

A Morgan State student filmed Warren’s speech at Friday’s commencement.
A Morgan State student filmed Warren’s speech at Friday’s commencement.(Erin Schaff/New York Times)

Warren has been busy in Washington, finding cosponsors for bills on housing, public corruption, and corporate incentives in the House, where they may pick up more momentum now that the Democrats will control the lower chamber come January. Meanwhile, according to a person close to the senator, her political operation is scouting for headquarters in Boston and reaching out to political and grass-roots leaders in key primary states — including South Carolina, an early voting state seen as a key test of a candidate’s strength with black voters.

Black voters helped power the wave of Democratic pickups in the House this year, and in 2016 they buoyed Hillary Clinton against an unexpectedly competitive challenge from Bernie Sanders.

“If the Democratic Party or the Democratic candidate can move and inspire us, they can guarantee their win,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Voters Matter Fund, an Atlanta-based organization focused on turning out African-American voters.

Brown called Warren a “strong, formidable candidate” and a “real progressive.” But the senator’s highly staged DNA release provided the first real reservations she’s had about Warren.

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“I do think that it calls to question her sensitivity around . . . I don’t think it’s just race, I think it’s race as it relates to responding to white male patriarchy,” Brown said.

However, Brown added she was not sure the controversy would be a “top piece of the concern” among most black voters.

Some of Warren’s legislative allies in the House who are African-American, such as Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Representative Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, downplay the controversy, instead praising her work on issues that affect minorities.

“Once you hear Elizabeth, I think that will not be a problem,” Cummings, who meets with Warren for lunch frequently, said in an interview at the Capitol. “I think African-American people will definitely be there for her.”

“I do like the fact that she’s making a real effort to engage and work with the African American community,” Richmond said. “I think that’s important, but I don’t think the motivation is for 2020 — I think she’s been doing that her whole life.”

Warren’s poll numbers have slipped lately; a CNN poll Friday found she had support from 3 percent of Democratic voters — down from 8 percent in early October, and less than Harris at 4 percent and Booker at 5 percent (the poll had a margin of error of 5.6 percent). Former vice president Joe Biden topped the field with 30 percent. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, her support among black voters is strong; she won 92 percent of the demographic in the 2018 Senate race, according to an analysis by WBUR.

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“She comes from where most of us come from,” said Thelma Bryant, a black woman, of Warren (above).
“She comes from where most of us come from,” said Thelma Bryant, a black woman, of Warren (above).(Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/File)

Warren has long held a certain appeal among some black progressives, grounded in no small part in the story of her origins that she returned to in the speech at Morgan State on Friday. From the podium in a fog-wrapped field house, wearing her Rutgers University robes with a flash of red before a sea of Morgan State blue and orange, Warren drew murmurs of recognition when she talked about her mother laying out a nice dress to apply for a minimum-wage job. Her observation that such a job is now no longer enough to live on was met with applause.

Then, Warren laid out a history of the policies, first from the federal government and then by predatory lenders, that disadvantaged black homeowners.

“Rules matter, and our government — not just individuals within the government, but the government itself — has systematically discriminated against black people in this country,” Warren said. There are, she added, “two sets of rules: One for white families, and one for everyone else.”

For Thelma Bryant, an executive assistant in her 60s attending her granddaughter’s graduation, it was enough to make her want Warren to run for president.

“She comes from where most of us come from,” said Bryant, who is black. “The big divide between the haves and have not — she can relate to most of us that are hurting right now.”

Bryant said she did not care a whit about Warren’s DNA test and heritage claims. Nor did Dyrell Madison, 58, who was watching his wife receive a doctorate and said he was shocked, “but in a pleasant way,” to hear a white politician take on racial discrimination so directly.

It was by no means Warren’s first time addressing race on a big stage. In recent years, she has differentiated herself from other white progressives, including Bernie Sanders, by linking her key themes with racial inequality. In 2015, she decried violence against African-Americans in a speech at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate in Boston. Earlier this year, speaking with Richmond of the black caucus at the historically black Dillard University in New Orleans, she called the criminal justice system racist “front to back.”

Warren has also spoken at conferences convened by Sharpton. The activist minister acknowledged black voters may be divided over the DNA test. But Sharpton said he was surprised by her ability to connect with black voters with her words and actions.

“She has shown us she’s not a New England librarian that just takes the right position,” Sharpton said.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.