Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The Democratic Party knows it needs the energetic support of black voters to win the 2020 presidential election. Near the end of last night’s debate in Atlanta, the question that arose—indirectly but unmistakably—was whether it needs a black candidate to turn them out.

The candidate who has surged into the lead in recent polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has registered virtually zero support among African American voters. The candidates he overtook, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, don’t have a whole lot more. And the candidate who does have the most support among black Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden, has a decades-long record on criminal-justice policies and school busing that is out of step with the views of many black voters, especially young ones.

So it was left to the two black candidates onstage last night, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, to warn their fellow candidates—and voters watching at home—that they take black voters, and especially black women, for granted at their peril. The issue came up initially when Harris was asked about her criticism of Buttigieg’s campaign after it published a stock photo of two black people who were from Kenya, not the United States. Harris declined to re-litigate that mini controversy, instead using the moment to bring up the Democratic Party’s historic neglect of black women. “The larger issue,” she said, “is that for too long, I think candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party. And have overlooked those constituencies. And they show up when it’s, you know, close to election time, and show up in a black church and want to get the vote but just haven’t been there before.”

“We’ve got to re-create the Obama coalition to win,” Harris continued, “and that means women, that’s people of color, that’s our LGBTQ community, that’s working people, that’s our labor unions. But that is how we are going to win this election, and I intend to win.”

Buttigieg noted that he leads a diverse city and that while he has never experienced discrimination based on the color of his skin, he’s had, as a gay man, “the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country.” Harris did not back down, however, from her larger implied argument against Buttigieg—that Democrats need, as they had in Barack Obama, “a leader who had worked in many communities, knows those communities, and has the ability to bring people together.”

When Booker next got a chance to speak, he jumped back to that discussion, drawing laughs when he noted that he had been excluded the first time around. “I have a lifetime of experience with black voters. I’ve been one since I was 18,” he said. “Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African American voters.”

“Black voters are pissed off, and they’re worried,” he continued. “They’re pissed off because the only time [their issues are paid attention] by politicians is when people are looking for their vote … We don’t want to see people miss this opportunity and lose because we are nominating someone that isn’t trusted, doesn’t have authentic connection. And so that’s what’s on the ballot.”

Booker then pivoted to an attack on Biden, who this week reiterated his opposition to legalizing marijuana and seemed to be summoning the drug wars of the 1980s and ’90s when he called it a “gateway drug.”

“I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker said, again to laughs. “Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people. The War on Drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”

Biden protested that he supports decriminalizing marijuana and would release those currently serving time in federal prisons on low-level charges. But then he stumbled, claiming that “I come out of the black community in terms of my support” and asserting that he has an endorsement from “the only African American woman that’d ever been elected to the United States Senate.”

“No ... the other one is here,” Harris interjected, as Biden tried to clarify that he meant the first black woman, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.

Harris and Booker couldn’t have made their point better if they had tried. Biden’s claim to black support—while backed up in polls at the moment—seemed to come out of an earlier era, when the “first black president” was not Barack Obama but Bill Clinton, and when white politicians relied on endorsements over authentic experience to prove their connection to the black community.

It was in Atlanta, 16 months ago, that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, issued something of a formal apology to black voters for the party taking them for granted over the years. A few months after that, Stacey Abrams fell just short in her bid to become the first black woman governor of an American state. Both Booker and Harris might fall short in their own candidacies for president, but they delivered a message last night that as they seek to energize black voters, Democrats still have more work to do.

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