Donna Edwards thrilled Netroots with a speech Sanders could love, while Elizabeth Warren improved her pitch on race
All week long Sen. Bernie Sanders has shown that he’s learned from his tough Netroots Nation experience. He’s beginning to incorporate the concerns and the passions of the Black Lives Matter movement, and even its language, into his populist campaign. He’s said the name of Sandra Bland more than once. He more regularly talks about unjust police practices and mass incarceration in his speeches.
We know Sanders’ class-before-race approach has derived from his belief that economic justice would go a long way toward making life better for black America. And yet many of us feel emphasizing class over race misses the way that racial attitudes, and the assumption of white superiority, is embedded in society in ways that aren’t necessarily economic. It’s even a factor in this debate, as white progressives – and I’ve done it myself – try to tell black activists what they should care about, rather than listening to what they do care about.
That’s why I was struck by the stellar way Rep. Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat, approached these issues at that same Netroots Nation event. Edwards is a Netroots sensation, whose election was an early success of the online progressive advocacy that began to develop in the middle of the last decade. She remembers her roots, and has always worked closely with white progressives.
But Edwards’ speech was a clinic in the way a progressive politician can seamlessly integrate the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement into an economic populist appeal. I’ll quote it at length below.
I also want to note that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Netroots speech was likewise well received and strong on the issues that African American progressives care about. I’ve written about Warren’s occasional tin-ear on race; her recent speeches show she’s learned how to correct it. When I saw her speak at the Roosevelt Institute in June, I noted she never mentioned Black Lives Matter or police abuse. Last week in Phoenix, she’d added a new bullet to her trademark declaration of what progressives believe:
I want to make one more very important point: Progressives believe that it shouldn’t take a revolution on YouTube to drive a revolution in law enforcement. It shouldn’t take a hurricane in New Orleans or a massacre in Charleston for Americans to wake up to what is happening – what is still happening – to people of color in this country. And it sure as heck shouldn’t take poll numbers to unite us in our determination to build a future for ALL our children. House Republicans may still want to fly the Confederate flag and Republican leaders may cower in the shadow of Donald Trump, but the American people understand that Black Lives Matter and America is not a country that stands for racism, bigotry or hatred. To build an economy that creates real opportunity, that doesn’t lock up millions of our fellow human beings and that uses the talents of all our people, Americans must prove that on equality and justice, the American people are Progressives.
It was still mainly a speech about Washington-Wall Street cronyism, the need for better financial sector regulation and a program that hikes the minimum wage, strengthens unions and reduces or eliminates student debt. But weaving Black Lives Matter into her core concerns, early, made a difference to her audience.
But Donna Edwards didn’t just weave it in. You might say she gave a Black Lives Matters speech that integrated economic populism throughout. And yet she also emphasized the things we have in common – black and white, rural and urban, old and young.
In fact, Edwards has long made the case that the multiracial left has to be more welcoming to skeptical white downscale voters – the voters Bernie Sanders is said to be targeting – and not assuming they’re just Tea Party sympathizers. “We make a mistake in lumping all these people who are on the edge with that extremist element,” she told Netroots Nation 2011. She even critiqued the language progressives use as a forbidding “code,” suggesting the term “white privilege” can drive away potential allies, rather than “draw[ing] them in.” She added, “I want to make sure we’re using language to draw people in who share the same concerns about declining jobs and opportunity.”
Progressives of every race have something to learn from Edwards, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Senate to fill the seat long held by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. So I’m printing her speech in full, here, with her permission. She makes a pitch for her own Senate candidacy at the end, and I’m leaving that in, too, because I see the Black Lives Matter movement transitioning from demands around language to demands around representation. Edwards would be the only black woman in the U.S. Senate, and her election could become a test case about whether white Democrats are merely trying to win the votes of African Americans, or are prepared to support black Democrats with their votes as well.