Elizabeth Warren takes on racial inequality with her policy proposals

At a national gathering of women of color this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was confronted by this question the moment she took the stage: Black women are far more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women — what will you do to address this crisis?

Without skipping a beat, the Massachusetts Democrat diagnosed the root of the problem with one word: “Prejudice.”

“Doctors and nurses don’t hear African-American women’s medical issues the same way that they hear the same things from white women,” Warren said. The Democratic presidential candidate then offered up a line that is quickly becoming an unofficial campaign slogan.

“I got a plan!” she said, prompting applause and cheers from the predominantly black and Latino audience at the She the People forum here in Houston.

Warren unveiled for the first time an idea to tackle the grim reality that women of color have significantly higher maternal mortality rates than their white counterparts: Hospitals that can bring down the number of deaths would receive a “bonus,” and if they don’t, “they’re going to have money taken away from them.”

“I want to see the hospitals see it as their responsibility to address this problem head-on and make it a first priority,” Warren said, “and the best way to do that is to use money to make it happen.”

That proposal was one of a long list of policy ideas Warren has unveiled since the start of her campaign, many of which — including housing and marijuana legalization — are aimed at tackling racial inequality and injustice.

That theme has been a part of Warren’s campaign from the beginning. In the launch of her exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve, Warren lamented in a video that “families of color face a path that is stepper and rockier — a path made even harder by the impact of generations of discrimination.” The video featured a line graph contrasting the trend of white household wealth in the United States over the past few decades against black household wealth.

For the 20 White House hopefuls vying for the Democratic nomination to take on Donald Trump, earning the support of minority groups — particularly African-American voters — is critical. Warren faces tough competition including from black candidates like Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as from former Vice President Joe Biden, whose decades-long ties to the black community and close relationship with Barack Obama give him a major advantage with the key voting bloc. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, has also made outreach to the black community a priority.

A number of those candidates also spoke at Wednesday’s “She the People” event: Sens. Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former Housing Secretary Julian Castro; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

In conversations with CNN after all of the White House hopefuls had taken the stage on Wednesday, a dozen women — most of them African-American — overwhelmingly pointed to Warren as the most impressive of the long lineup. Some of the women openly acknowledged that they were surprised by the positive impression that the senator had left on them. And almost all of them pointed to the specificity of Warren’s ideas as having won them over.

Dominque Davis, a 32-year-old African-American woman from Houston, told CNN that she was most impressed by three candidates: Warren, Booker and Castro.

“But the clearest and strongest candidate was Elizabeth Warren. I say that because I liked her thoughts on attacking the mortality rates for women of color. She had a plan, which was very important to me,” Davis said. “The best candidate will be someone who has a clear plan. They don’t have to have all the answers, but have a plan.”

Kenya Minott, a black woman from Kingwood, Texas, said Warren devoted the most time out of any of the candidates to “talking tangibly about the policies she’d enact.”

“That resonated with me and the women seated around me,” Minott, 47, told CNN. “She was really very specific, and very clear about her zero tolerance of gender inequality and looking at how it has disproportionately affected women of color. People just want folks to keep it real with them. The energy I got from the room was that people would nod, stand up. She was calling a fact, a fact.”

But while Warren appeared to receive a notably favorable reception at the “She the People” conference this week, the senator has a tough hill to climb. Any inroads Warren might be making among black activists and intellectuals does not yet appear to have translated to support from regular black voters.

A late March Quinnipiac poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters showed Biden with 44% support among black voters, followed by Sanders with 17%, O’Rourke with 16% and Harris with 8%. Support for Warren among the black responders in the survey was negligible. (A majority of the black voters surveyed said that race was not an important factor in voting for a Democratic nominee.)

Warren has more than nine months until the Iowa caucuses to see if those proposals will lead to more support.

When she unveiled a housing proposal last month, she described the history of the federal government’s discrimination against black families seeking to receive housing subsidies — and the continued gap between white and black home ownership — “a moral stain on our country.”

At a CNN town hall this week, Warren explained her support for marijuana legalization in the context of racial discrimination. “The best evidence suggests that African-Americans and whites use marijuana at about the same rates and yet African-Americans fare far more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites are,” she said.

Earlier this month, Warren announced her support for getting rid of the legislative filibuster at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference. She pointed to the anti-lynching bill, which was stalled by the Senate filibuster many times over the course of a century, as one example of how “for generations, the filibuster was used as a tool to block progress on racial justice.”

And Warren’s most recent proposal to cancel millions of Americans’ student loan debts and make all public colleges tuition-free is aimed at helping lower-income students and students of color, including the creation of a $50 billion fund for historically black colleges and other minority institutions.

“By forgiving student loan debt, we help a lot of African-American students who as a group are more likely to have to borrow to go to college, are more likely to borrow money, more money, while they’re in college and are more likely to have trouble paying for it after they get out of college,” Warren told CNN.

Mary Ibarra, a 25-year-old woman originally from the Rio Grande Valley, told CNN at the “She the People” conference that she had arrived at the conference with several favorite candidates, including Castro. By the end of the event, it was Warren who had made a “lasting impact,” said Ibarra, who said she remains undecided on who she will support in 2020.

Ibarra heard “sniffling” in the audience when Warren told the story of her mother getting dressed to go find a minimum-wage job after her father suffered a heart attack.

“She was engaged and went into the details, addressing the issues important to us. She was really responsive. You could tell she was really excited to be there,” Ibarra said. “I would say as a woman of color, when we’re going into any industry, we have to be twice as prepared… and Elizabeth Warren did just that to a very tough crowd.”