This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
This story was co-published with The Washington Post.
While many Black women are calling for Joe Biden to choose someone who looks like them as his running mate, others say the White woman they are open to is Elizabeth Warren, whom they see as having shown a commitment to confronting racial justice as a professor, senator and presidential candidate.
Warren (D-Mass.) sidestepped a question about the role, but in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday, the senator laid out her evolution on race, class and inequality in America and talked about the need to end racism with big structural policies.
“The vice-presidential decision is up to Vice President Biden and whoever he chooses. I am 100 percent committed to making sure Democrats get elected up and down the ballot,” Warren told The 19th when asked about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s announcement that she would take herself out of the running. “We need Democrats at every level of government fighting tooth and nail to end police brutality, to end systemic racism in every part of our society, and to make our economy truly work for every single person.”
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who has called for a Black woman to be Biden’s running mate, endorsed and campaigned for Warren during the 2020 primary and has frequently spoken to the senator on issues of race and policy.
“She has been, for a long time, doing a lot of work around understanding systemic racism,” Garza said. “She could motivate progressives in such a way that brings people together around race, class and gender. If Biden wins, he needs Warren at his side, because frankly, I don’t see how, without her leadership, Black communities are going to get much.”
Warren acknowledged she didn’t spend much time growing up thinking about systemic racism but said she has spent much of her life catching up, using her privilege to confront institutions of power on behalf of marginalized communities.
Warren, 71, first learned about the economic devastation to Black families as a young professor studying the impact of bankruptcy. As a senator, she created an agency to protect consumers with an eye toward the racial disparities inherent in the Great Recession. In her platform and policies, as a presidential candidate, she took into account the effects of systemic racism.
As a potential vice-presidential running mate, Warren’s name is at or near the top in national polls among Democratic voters — including among the Black women who are the backbone of the party, who were key to Biden’s swift primary victory and who could be crucial to a winning strategy in November. Her argument that structural change is needed to end racism could be key to her appeal, particularly in the country’s moment of national reckoning.
Warren said all Americans must be deliberate to make change, and included herself in that imperfect process. Before announcing her candidacy at the end of 2018, in an attempt to respond to President Trump’s mocking of her as “Pocahontas,” Warren became embroiled in controversy when she produced a DNA test to show evidence of distant Native American ancestry. She later apologized.
“You can’t fix what you won’t look at,” she said. “I screw things up, but I listen, I learn and I fix it. That’s why it’s so important to move beyond being an ally and becoming an anti-racist, co-conspirator for justice. Because it’s done in the hope that we really can build a better country, not just for some, but build a better country for everyone.”
Many are open to her joining the ticket because of her decades-long commitment to dismantling institutional racism, said Garza, who was among several Black women who recently signed a letter that called for a Black woman to be Biden’s vice-presidential pick and that specifically named Klobuchar as a non-starter for Black female voters, citing her record as a prosecutor.
Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said last month that in the interest of unifying Democrats, she was withdrawing from the vice-presidential vetting process, saying: “I think this is a moment to put a woman of color on the ticket.”
“Should it not come down to that, Warren would be an excellent candidate,” said Garza, founder of the Black to the Future Action Fund, who has spoken frequently with Warren about issues of race and policy. “Warren, at the very least, has done her work.”
Biden is expected to announce his decision by Aug. 1 and has pledged to choose a woman. There has never been a female vice president, and the decision is seen as one of the most consequential in modern politics.
Warren, formerly a registered Republican, said her views changed when she started “studying people who were broke.”
“My family wasn’t very political growing up,” Warren said. “But I listened and I recognized: There is privilege in not being political. When I started doing research and listening to people’s stories … the deeper I got into it, the more I started seeing the racial element of it.”
Warren was a Harvard University professor in 2007 when she first proposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She worked with President Barack Obama to create and establish the agency, which became official in 2011.
Warren talked with the country’s first Black president about the impact of the 2008 recession on Black and Latino families. She became a senator representing Massachusetts in 2012 and in 2015 was one of the earliest lawmakers to publicly declare “Black lives matter” in a speech calling for policing reforms.
During the 2020 primaries, Warren frequently addressed race. Her policies on issues including college loan debt, criminal justice reform and health care were often informed by her previous research and the women of color working on her campaign. In a notable speech after the November debate, Warren connected the story of a Black washerwoman’s strike in Atlanta at the turn of the 20th century to the current-day need for Black and White women to unite for progress.
“To this day, racism still whispers the convenient lie to some White people that if your life has problems, you should blame ‘them’ — people who don’t look like you,” Warren told the crowd. “The wealthy and well-connected want us to believe that more for your neighbors will always mean less for you. But the truth is, when we come together, we can all move forward.”
She the People founder Aimee Allison said she was struck by Warren’s “ease and readiness to talk about how racism has damaged our lives, how racism led to government programs that left Black and Brown people from benefiting, and how directly addressing racism in her plans can eliminate structural racism” — which she first observed at a candidates forum in April 2019.
“It was a revelation from a White senator,” Allison recalled, but added that she does not believe an all-White ticket is a winning strategy in 2020.
“The question for me is: Do I believe an all-White ticket would meet the moment? The answer is no. We have a party that is the home of powerhouse women of color. … Now more than ever, Black women in particular are being looked at by people of all races as leaders.”
In her interview Wednesday, Warren said she was intentional as a presidential candidate about focusing on issues of systemic racism.
“All of my plans focused on setting aside specific money to help close that gap, because in every place we’re talking about there is an intersection and they are all the product of racism, the product of White supremacy and the product of a government that has not addressed those aggressively and affirmatively,” she said.
Activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham first met Warren in person at the beginning of the primary campaign in 2019 over tea at the senator’s Washington apartment. She recalled Warren as someone “who had more questions than answers” and who was “intentional and curious.”
Cunningham also signed on to the op-ed calling for a Black woman on the ticket but said Warren is someone who could excite Black voters.
“What I’m hearing most from people is that they want someone who is going to hold the line on focusing on marginalized communities, on Black folks and who’s really going to push for what we know works — no matter how unpopular that is,” Cunningham said, adding that Warren is among the few on the list for vice president who fits that criteria.
“We have never had time for anyone who doesn’t take this issue deathly seriously, and we certainly don’t have time for that now,” she continued. “Anyone in the running to be vice president who has shown that they will engage in justice work before and after it stops being popular is worth serious consideration. It is precisely that kind of person that we need at the very top.”