Watch and learn, progressives: Donna Edwards and Elizabeth Warren show how to talk about Black Lives Matter

Donna Edwards thrilled Netroots with a speech Sanders could love, while Elizabeth Warren improved her pitch on race

Published July 24, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

Donna Edwards, Elizabeth Warren     (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke/Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Donna Edwards, Elizabeth Warren (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke/Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

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.


Hello Netroots Nation. Good evening. It is so great being back with you. It feels like being back home. I want to thank you so much. All I have to say is that I’ll meet you in St. Louis after I get the nomination.

Before we start, I want to acknowledge the four Marines who were killed today in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

We don’t know all of the background. We’ll find that out over a few days. But it’s a reminder, yet again, that every single day 88 Americans lose their lives at the end of a gun.

If we would observe another moment of silence, in addition to the four Marines, for Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and countless other of America’s men, women and children, whose lives have been lost at the end of a gun, sometimes even at the hands of law enforcement.

It would have to be another moment of silence for the families of the fallen from Newtown to Aurora, Ferguson, Baltimore and the senseless, massacre in Charleston and now in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It would be a moment of silence for every police officer killed in the line of duty and for their families, families that worry every night whether or not their loved ones will come home. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of just observing a moment of silence. It’s time for us to turn that moment of silence into action.

Sometimes it seems like the people who are seeking justice in a system that is really unjust -- that we are on the opposite sides of the issue. But it turns out that our hopes, dreams and aspirations for our communities are the same everywhere – a safe home, a safe neighborhood, a good school, a decent job, and an end to the gun violence that’s all across our streets.

The solutions are not simple ones. They are complex solutions. They require leaders who are willing to do a whole bunch of different things at the same time. At the end of the day what is going to define us is whether we are able to take these solutions and make a difference for our communities.

But for so long we have watched, whether it is in the Mississippi Delta or it's in the hills of Kentucky to the streets of Baltimore and Chicago, here in Arizona, New Mexico, communities that look and feel like the developing world and the places we send foreign aid. We have disinvested in so many of our communities, and to not connect the violence on our streets to what is happening in our communities and the disinvestment in those communities would be a really big mistake. Let’s think about our families. They’re in decaying places where the jobs have gone some place else. They’re in rural America and urban America. There are men, women, and children who feel forgotten because they are forgotten. It’s harder for them to find jobs, harder for them to feed their families, and really just harder to make ends meet.

I was visiting some of the schools where we’re expecting our young people to get a 21st century education and compete in a 21st century economy, but they are attending mid-20th century schools and they’re reading from books that were in school while I was in school. And let me tell you, that was a long time ago.

We’ve had and heard about decades of high unemployment, chronic underemployment, and a stagnant and low minimum wage we have not be able to raise. In 2015, it’s a sexist, crooked caste system that makes it okay for an African American woman to earn 70 cents on the dollar and for a Latina 58 cents on the dollar. You know what that means? That means we are working a third to half the year for free. Can you imagine that? And yet it’s okay.

And then there are some people who are saying, even Democrats, who are saying, well in addition to you having low wages and not being paid what you are worth, we want to cut Social Security. When at the end of our lives, at the end of black lives, the only thing that we have is Social Security, and now we can’t afford that either. In fact, this is a time we need to talk about raising social security benefits, raising wages.

As I listened to some of the remarks on stage, yes, Black Lives Matter. But you know what, we have a justice system that has always, really from the beginning of this country, been stacked against black men and minority men.

Whether you’re talking about 1776 or 1860 or Jim Crow or the New Jim Crow, it’s been a deck stacked against our black men.

Let’s face it.  So, I’m a Mom of a young black man and I know that if you are young and black in America, you are twice as likely to get arrested as your white counterparts. If you are between the ages of 20 to 24, most young kids die in car accidents, but not for black men. Black men die because of gun violence in that same age group.

It is a fact young black men are 21 times more likely than white young men to be shot to death by a police officer -- 21 times more likely. And ignoring this problem is not going to make it go away.

Some people have complained about the mistrust that African Americans have for the justice system and they complain about that as though we are suffering from some kind of paranoia that is not borne in reality. But in fact that mistrust is deeply borne in reality and it’s borne by these statistics we just heard.

I was in Charleston, when the President delivered the eulogy for Senator Pinckney, and he talked about the horrific terrorist attack that took nine lives in Charleston, and he connected the wounds of our painful past to today’s injustices. One of the things that struck me was when the President spoke about the "subtle impulse to call Johnny back for an interview but not Jamal."

As I sat there in that arena-turned-church in Charleston, it made me think of Jamal, but it also made me think of Jamal's mother. I feel like Jamal’s mother. It made me think about whether her experience mirrors my experience.

I’ll bet you Jamal’s mother has had a few sleepless nights when she’s thought about her son out at night -- maybe he’s going to be vulnerable to gun violence. I’ll bet Jamal’s mother has had sleepless nights when she has thought about the failing schools in her neighborhood, the incarceration of Jamal’s friends, the traffic stops and whether he’ll know to do the right thing.

As a mom of a young black man, I can remember having those conversations, and I still have those conversations with my son where I say to him: “You know police officers are mostly good. But if you get stopped, you keep your hands where he can see them, because I don’t want there to be an accident.”

The fact is that I don’t know that my white friends who are mothers have that same conversation with their young people, but I have that conversation with my son.  And I bet Jamal's mother had that conversation with him.

As progressives, we have to sometimes remember what kind of language we use. Jamal’s mother doesn’t really say the words “income inequality.”

She may not even know those words. But, when she goes to bed, I’ll bet you she’s worried about whether she can feed herself and her children. I’ll bet you she knows that she’s working harder and longer hours than she ever did before but not making as much money. I’ll bet that if she gets sick that she can’t afford to take a day off because she won’t get paid for it.

I’ll bet Jamal’s mother knows the school that her children go to is not the same as another school just because she is in a different zip code. She knows that she lives in a neighborhood where she goes to sleep and she hears gun shots in the night -- not lightning bugs.

I’ll bet Jamal’s mother knows that she can’t find a grocery store in her neighborhood where she can get fresh fruit. This is important because we have to speak Jamal’s mother’s language. We have to connect our communities. Because it is important for all of us to rise up against inequality.

Jamal’s mother may not understand that when we say "income inequality" we're speaking to her. But she doesn’t need to say those words when she has to take a bus to go to work and it takes her an hour and a half to go to work, then she has to pay for childcare that takes about a third of her income, which means she doesn’t have anything left over at the end of the week.

For Jamal’s mother she doesn’t have to say the words “income inequality” because she is living income inequality. I know that we can do better. I know we can. But, we have to have a commitment to do that. Frankly, we need more than just another moment of silence every time there is another gun death.

We need to stand down the National Rifle Association. I am going to say it out loud because I want them to know that I am saying it: the NRA is nothing more than a lobby for corporate gun interests that has nothing to do with gun ownership. They want to stand in the way of any kind of regulation and we have to create a national movement that says we are tired of losing 88 lives a day to gun violence. And we are going to stand them down together.

The NRA wants us bow our heads in another moment of silence, but we're going to lift our heads up and we’re going to fight them until they are done. Until they are done with our politics, done with our laws, and until they get these guns out of our communities.

But we can’t be done there. We are not going to be done there. We are not going to be done because we know that we also have the challenge of creating the good jobs that have left American cities because our manufacturing has left America. We know that we have the challenge of raising wages because wages have been stagnant for 20 years.

We know that we have to grow our income base and our revenue by having an immigration system that encourages immigrants to contribute to our communities. And invest in our communities. And pay taxes that contribute to our revenue streams. That is the kind of immigration system that America needs to embrace. And we can do that.

We can do it. We have to have affordable housing. Where I live, the poor people move far away and the wealthy people stay in the inner core because the poor can’t afford to live there anymore. That has to be reversed.

You can’t expect somebody who barely makes a living to then take out a loan that is equivalent to what a loan shark would charge for a mortgage so that they can afford to take care of themselves and their families.

When I think about some of these challenges, the solutions are no different than what my parents wanted for me. It is no different.

Have a job, get paid a decent wage, have an occasional day off if you're sick, maybe if you are lucky, a vacation, have your kids go to schools where they can learn, grow up, and contribute to the economy.

These are really not big asks for the American people. But you know what? As long as the corporate special interests are sucking out of the system, as long as they are taking their taxes off our shores, as long as they are ones who control the reigns of power, then those simple solutions can’t be achieved for the American people.

But you know what, we’re actually more than they are. We’re more than they are in our numbers and we’re more than they are in our organizing and we have to take on that challenge.

Some people will ask me when I have said,  “Well we have to increase Social Security benefits and Medicare benefits.” And you know what the deficit hawks will say? “If you do that how are you going to pay for it?”

Well my goodness! Pay for it with the billions of dollars that have been sent offshore. Pay for it with the subsidies that you are giving to oil and gas. Pay for it by making sure that everybody works, even if they make over $118,000 dollars a year, pays into the system. We can do this. I don’t know about you but I am tired of the other guys controlling the game.

One of the speakers up here earlier talked about the importance of their voices and their perspective in the policy debate.

Jamal’s mother, she’s not in Congress. Jamal’s mother is not in the United States Senate. But she needs to be. She needs to be because her voice needs to be heard. Her perspective needs to be heard in the halls of Congress and we have the ability to make that make that kind of change.

I’ve always believed in citizen activism. I was an organizer. I was a rabble rouser. I think I still am a rabble rouser in the Congress. I have always believed in the power of our activism and the power of our voice if we are standing united to make that happen.

Citizen activism led to the Freedom Riders and John Lewis, my colleague, who marched to freedom. Citizen activism has resulted in great change in this nation.

And what we’ve heard is that there is need now for a completely different kind of voice and it is not a voice that is backed by big money. It is not a voice that is backed by special interests. It is our voice that has to be at the governing table.

And I want to issue all of us a challenge: I have a little challenge going on myself, it’s a thing called a Senate race. Happening in April of next year.

Now there are some people who say that I am a little too “liberal” to be in the United States Senate. Some people say that maybe I am a little too “activist” to be in the United States Senate. I think that what they mean is that they are afraid that I might say and do something that is going to shake things up a little bit.

And so here we are. We have 100 Senators. There are 20 women. There’s one woman of color, there are two black men, handful of others. There is not a black women in the U.S Senate. Not one. There hasn’t been one since Carol Moseley Braun was in the Senate 23 years ago.

So all I have to say is that people shouldn’t be afraid of that one, one little black women -- just one out of a hundred is going to be in the United States Senate. I promise that I’m not going to hurt them too much. I’ll challenge them just a little bit.

But if you want somebody in the Senate who is going to make sure that the voices of Jamal’s mother, the voices of our streets from Baltimore to Ferguson are heard, that the voices of our immigrant communities are represented in the United States Senate, that the voices of progressive public policy are aggregated -- we need Elizabeth Warren to have some partners in the United States Senate.

You just tell them to just make room for one black women in the United States Senate, and I will be there. And I will be there for you, the Netroots Nation community that got me where I am -- you are going to take me over the top.

Thank you very much and God bless you.


By Joan Walsh