At N.A.A.C.P. Forum, 2020 Democrats Say Trump Harms Black Communities

DETROIT — As “Robert Mueller Wednesday” overtook Washington, with the nation transfixed on the congressional testimony of the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, Democratic presidential hopefuls laid out a different case: that President Trump is a bigot who unduly harms black communities.

One by one, at the national convention of the N.A.A.C.P., the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, the Democratic candidates chose not to discuss Mr. Mueller’s testimony in detail and instead outlined their respective plans to uplift black people.

When they did mention Mr. Trump, it was often in the context of his remarks about racial minorities, and his tendency to evoke stereotypes steeped in racist history to degrade his political opponents.

“He’s isolating our nation from other nations in the world,” said Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, voicing his support for impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump. “It’s time for the United States to lead again. And be a leading force of light and justice and democracy.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has made outreach to black voters, a critical voting bloc in the Democratic primary, a hallmark of her ascendant candidacy. In her speech, she reminded N.A.A.C.P. delegates, who voted unanimously on Tuesday to recommend impeachment proceedings, that she was the first presidential candidate to call for such action.

“This is a man who has broken the law and he should be impeached,” she said. “Whether it would pass the Senate or not, this is a moment in history and every single person in Congress should be called on to vote and to live with that vote for the rest of their lives.”

The presidential forum was largely a preview of next week’s second set of Democratic debates, in which candidates are expected to spend less time indicting the current administration and more time trying to distinguish themselves from one another.

Two of the most anticipated candidates at the forum were former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Kamala Harris of California, who polls show currently lead the race for the black vote. Both were involved in the primary contest’s most memorable moment to date: when Ms. Harris challenged Mr. Biden’s work with avowed segregationists and opposition to busing on the debate stage last month.

In the debate next Wednesday, Mr. Biden will stand between Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, who called on Mr. Biden to apologize for his remarks about segregationists and released a blistering statement on Tuesday in response to his new criminal justice plan. Advisers for both campaigns have hinted that they would directly target Mr. Biden at the debate.

But while Mr. Booker repeated his criticism of Mr. Biden in remarks to reporters before the event, the candidates did not go after each other while onstage on Wednesday.

“This is a moment in time where we must fight for the best of who we are, and fight we will,” Ms. Harris said to applause.

“We’re in a battle for the soul of this nation,” said Mr. Biden. He left the stage to rousing cheers.

The forum was hosted by April Ryan, the longtime journalist who has been a target of Mr. Trump’s administration. Ms. Ryan, the Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and a CNN analyst, repeatedly pushed candidates on several issues that are particularly important to black communities, including voting rights, criminal justice, reparations and closing the racial wealth gap.

Though the N.A.A.C.P. has undergone a major revamp since its glory days of the 1960s, when the organization was on the forefront of civil rights advancements, it remains a hub of reliable Democratic support — particularly from older and more religious black voters.

Historically the candidate who has earned the plurality of black votes — particularly in the South — has gone on to be the party’s nominee. And as some attendees noted, the sheer number of top-tier candidates who attended the forum, in addition to recent events like the Black Economic Alliance Forum in South Carolina and the She the People Presidential Forum in Texas, makes clear how serious the candidates are about addressing black voters directly.

“I invite you to watch me talk about systemic racism not only when I’m talking to mostly black audiences, but when I’m talking to mostly white audiences,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., told the crowd. Mr. Buttigieg is seeking to shed his reputation as a candidate for white elites, and pointed to his recently released “Douglass Plan” to address racial inequality as evidence of his campaign’s growth.

Mr. Booker said his identity as a black man living in Newark gave him a unique perspective on the nation’s racial disparities that no president has had before. Ms. Harris noted that she sponsored a marijuana decriminalization bill this week, aimed at reversing the racial disparities in sentencing for drug-related crimes.

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who is seeking to jolt his flagging campaign, drew chuckles from the crowd for sidestepping pointed yes or no questions in favor of longer, impassioned answers. “The biggest misconception about me is that our chances have narrowed and diminished in this race,” he said.

And Mr. Biden promoted his criminal justice plan, which is designed to reduce the mass incarceration that disproportionately harms black people and rolls back some of the tough-on-crime measures he helped put into law in the 1980s and ’90s. Mr. Biden will also speak at the National Urban League conference this week in Indianapolis, in a sign of how crucial black voters are to his campaign’s chances.

“I love you,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday. “Look me over. I need your help!”

In a preview of the coming scrutiny that Mr. Biden will face, several people at the N.A.A.C.P. convention seized on his criminal justice plan to question the former vice president’s record.

Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who opposed several of Mr. Biden’s crime bills in the 1980s and ’90s and ran against him for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, said Mr. Biden “has some responsibility for the criminal justice system as it exists now.”

Mr. Booker took a more direct shot at Mr. Biden’s plan: “For a guy who was an architect of mass incarceration, this is an inadequate solution.”

Asked by reporters about Mr. Booker’s statement after the forum, Mr. Biden responded with a criticism of Mr. Booker’s own criminal justice record.

“His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African-American men,” Mr. Biden said, referring to the high number of black people ensnared by improper stops conducted by the Newark Police Department when Mr. Booker was mayor. He noted that the Justice Department, under the Obama administration, appointed a federal monitor to oversee the city’s police.

Returning to his recently unveiled criminal justice proposal, Mr. Biden added, “I challenge him, or anyone else, to tell me how he has a better plan than I have.”

Source link