“Race matters,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told me in an interview last Wednesday, “and we need to face it.” Two days earlier, Warren became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to make the trek to North Philadelphia with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to meet with union members. These town halls have a rhythm: Brief remarks from Weingarten, a short monologue from the candidate, and then questions from the most important people in the room: teachers. After Warren’s speech, she was pressed about the growing wall of student debt—and it drew out her higher-education pitch.
The Massachusetts senator and former law professor launched into a lecture about how to reform paying for higher education, declaring, “We need to talk about the racial dimension of this head on.” She ran down the stats. “Students of color are more likely to have to borrow money to go to college, they borrow more money when they’re in college, and they have a harder time paying for it when they get out of college,” Warren said. There was a difference, a systemic one, she argued, and the policy makers needed to fix it.
Warren’s early 2020 platform has reflected a need to remedy that difference—and higher education is not the only arena where her policy approach addresses America’s legacy of discrimination. From housing to health care, her message in many ways intentionally places an emphasis on race and wealth. In recent years, candidates have placed an emphasis on black outreach as part of their get-out-the-vote efforts, whether that means playing up one’s black bona fides, like Senator Kamala Harris, or sitting down with Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s in Harlem, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. But what Warren is doing this spring is unique: She is offering a detailed body of policy to go alongside platitudes.