Elizabeth Warren is not running for president.
But based on the dazzling speech she recently delivered on racial and economic justice, she most definitely should. Sen. Warren (D-Mass.) furthered our national conversation about race with a bold speech linking racial equality, public policy, economic justice and American history.
Warren’s #BlackLivesMatter speech Sunday at the Edward Kennedy Institute in Boston threw down a political and moral gauntlet, as she became the first politician of national stature to articulate a full-throated endorsement of the battle against structural and institutional racism that has become the cri de coeur of Black Lives Matter activists around the nation and the world.
Warren did this through a deft combination of historical analysis and policy brief, noting, “Coming out of the Great Depression, America built a middle class, but systematic discrimination kept most African-American families from being part of it.”
Most importantly, Warren highlighted the link between race and class in America: “Economic justice is not—and has never been—sufficient to ensure racial justice.”
This is a crucial lesson with which many white progressives—hello, Bernie Sanders!—have yet to come to terms.
Warren rightfully placed the Black Lives Matter movement as a direct heir of the civil rights movement’s heroic period, during which activists fought for bread-and-butter issues such as housing, jobs and schools and against racial violence that plagued the Jim Crow era.
Civil rights, asserted Warren, introduced new laws that ensured that “Black lives matter. Black citizens matter. Black families matter.”
Warren then proceeded to do what few national politicians do when discussing contemporary race relations: She was both honest and bold. Fifty years after the civil rights era’s heyday, “violence against African Americans has not disappeared,” she said.
The senator, a former Harvard University law professor, described this violence in panoramic terms, documenting the physical assaults on black bodies that have become a clarion call for activists and writers, and the legal and legislative bullying that threatens voting rights in our own time.
Economic violence against the black community has increased both the income and wealth gaps between African Americans and whites, with blacks still unable to recover housing losses (including those engineered through racist “mud people” loans engineered by Wells Fargo) sustained during the 2008 recession.
Warren’s speech moved expertly between the past and present, recalling the manner in which black activists during the 1960s upset the status quo by challenging powerful interests to acknowledge that black lives were important and sacred.
Yesterday’s troublemakers become, with the passage of time, today’s historical icons.
Warren’s brilliant speech exemplifies larger national truths about race and democracy in America. Racial slavery has permanently scarred the nation’s political, economic and social institutions, leading to a world wherein black folks have suffered centuries of institutional discrimination and humiliation, yet are still accused of standing in line for “free stuff” doled out by the government.
Activist DeRay Mckesson told the Washington Post that “Warren, better than any political leader I've yet heard, understands the protests as a matter of life or death—that the American dream has been sustained by an intentional violence and that the uprisings have been the result of years of lived trauma.”
Black Lives Matter activists may have found a political ally in Warren, who, while refusing to run for president, has become one of the nation’s most powerful voices for change.
The civil rights movement only scratched the metaphorical surface of the tapestry of racism and white supremacy—in housing; real estate; public schools; business; federal, state and local governments; the criminal-justice system—that current generations of black activists find themselves battling.
Warren’s political candor offers an example of moral and political leadership to presidential aspirants too afraid to boldly outline how America’s racial and economic divide is intertwined in our history, policies and personal lives.
Our national celebrations regarding racial and economic justice have been as woefully premature as conservative attempts to demonize Black Lives Matter activists have been predictable. Warren’s speech reminds us that social movements and mainstream politicians always exist in creative tension. National unrest inspired John F. Kennedy’s finest moment as president. Selma, Ala., helped thrust Lyndon B. Johnson into the ages. Warren’s Black Lives Matter speech will prove historic, and remind us that linking social justice to national destiny has produced America’s most sublime historical movements and defining political moments.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.