America is on fire, and Joe Biden faces a choice. The spark may have been the brutal killing of George Floyd, but the current awakening is about more than police violence. Black communities around the country are responding to decades of policies and practices that constrain and destroy Black lives: wealth-stripping, redlining, school closures, poverty-wage jobs, voter suppression and gentrification. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the ways in which racialized capitalism leaves Black and brown Americans disproportionately exposed to dangers, from hazardous working conditions to crowded housing to underfunded and overburdened health-care facilities.
The former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee already has committed to picking a woman as his running mate. Against the backdrop of the growing movement for Black liberation, he's been encouraged to select a potential governing partner from a list of qualified Black women that includes California Sen. Kamala D. Harris, Florida Rep. Val Demings — sitting members of Congress with backgrounds in law enforcement — and Susan Rice, a former national security adviser and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
But if Biden is committed to choosing a running mate who consistently challenges the status quo on behalf of working people, particularly in the Black community, who offers detailed policy prescriptions to remake our economy and strengthen our democracy, and who has clearly articulated the centrality of race, gender and class in the persistence of structural inequality, his choice doesn't automatically have to be Black. And the potential candidate who obviously meets that standard isn't Black. It's Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
In September 2015 — nearly five years before Floyd was killed — Warren spoke passionately: "None of us can ignore what is happening in this country. Not when our Black friends, family, neighbors literally fear dying in the streets," she said. "This is the reality all of us must confront, as uncomfortable and ugly as that reality may be. It comes to us to once again affirm that Black lives matter, that Black citizens matter, that Black families matter."
Today, she marches with protesters. "Being anti-racist means fighting for anti-racist public policy," she has continued to insist. "Being race neutral just won't work."
Before she was an elected official, Warren had established a track record of speaking inconvenient truths about racism and taking on the fights that matter. She identified the factors that keep working families in cycles of economic insecurity and the specific role that racism plays in trapping Black and brown communities. In a 2004 law review article on the economics of race, she explained: "The economic security that comes with arrival in the middle class is divided by race, leaving Hispanic and Black families at far more risk than their white counterparts." In the popular book she authored with her daughter, "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke," Warren laid out her view that "subprime lending, payday loans, and the host of predatory, high-interest loan products that target minority neighborhoods should be called by their true names: legally sanctioned corporate plans to steal from minorities."
She had a lead role in founding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which in its relatively short tenure has pursued a series of enforcement actions against institutions that have discriminated against Black and brown borrowers.
As a presidential candidate, Warren's "Working Agenda for Black America" outlined a student loan debt cancellation plan with a goal of reducing the Black-white racial wealth gap by 25%. She called for tackling the deplorable Black maternal mortality rate by rewarding health systems that keep Black mothers healthier. And she proposed the creation of a small-business equity fund with $7 billion to provide grants to entrepreneurs of color.
Along with several of her Senate and House colleagues, Warren introduced a bill calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to publish data on COVID-19 testing, treatment and outcomes that is disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, age, primary language, socioeconomic status and other demographic characteristics. On Tuesday, Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requesting HHS reporting on the administration's efforts to address health disparities, including those affected by COVID-19. The Trump administration's lack of planning for the pandemic and its economic consequences has been catastrophic for Black America.
No politician is perfect; we haven't always agreed with Warren's positions or politics. (When Black Womxn For challenged the language she used to describe people serving life sentences, she responded by meeting with Black women activists, apologizing and updating her policy plans.) But she has demonstrated what is possible when politicians commit to working with social movements to achieve our shared goals. One lesser-known example: Warren listened to Black farmers and amended her agriculture policy to address their concerns.
Warren's willingness and ability to listen and respond have earned her the respect of many Black leaders and thinkers. After Ta-Nehisi Coates penned his acclaimed essay, "The Case for Reparations," Warren contacted him to discuss his work. In an interview last year, Coates expressed his view that of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Warren was the most serious about reparations. Throughout her campaign, she prioritized building relationships with Black women leaders by incorporating their demands into her platform, earning the support of activists such as LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.
In the midst of this historic uprising that has many calling for a complete overhaul of the criminal legal system, it speaks volumes that Warren's political career isn't tied to the Jim Crow system of mass incarceration, and her plan to reform it was one of the strongest in the Democratic primary. Her latest legislative victory — getting Senate Republicans to stand up to President Trump by approving her measure requiring the military to rid bases of Confederate names — is another example of her commitment to challenging racism and her ability to get things done.
We supported different candidates in the primary: Angela and her organization endorsed Warren, and Phillip was a national surrogate and later senior adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. But we are both part of the movement for Black liberation that is shaping the consciousness of a generation, and we are convinced that only elected servants with a people-centered vision will compel our movement to fight at the polls the way we have in the streets.
Not only will Warren's commitment to racial equity and challenging oppressive systems register with a rising generation of voters; her record shows that if she becomes vice president, she will remain committed to an agenda that lifts the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized.
Representation is important. When generations of white supremacy have kept Black folks from proportional representation in the highest offices at all levels of government, undoubtedly it means something when one of us shatters the glass ceiling, clearing space for others to follow. However, the fires that burn in the streets of cities across the country will not be put out simply by putting a Black name on the ticket. Without transformative policy, representation alone is insufficient.
If Democrats' response to the reckoning against systemic racism is simply to nominate a Black woman for vice president, no matter her politics, they will affirm the skepticism of young and progressive voters and rob this country of another opportunity to enact the sweeping changes needed for our communities to thrive. Voters want, and America needs, someone who has shown the courage to take on the corrupting forces of racism and greed. Warren has.
Peoples is director of Black Womxn For and a co-founder of The South. Agnew is a co-founder of the Dream Defenders.