10 presidential hopefuls stress civil rights bona fides at NAACP forum

April Ryan questions Bernie Sanders at the NAACP presidential forum, July 24, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Ten candidates in the crowded 2020 presidential field made their case as civil rights champions Wednesday, on the closing day of the national NAACP convention in Detroit. 

Each candidate, including nine of the 20-plus contending for the Democratic nomination and one Republican, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, was questioned by White House correspondent April Ryan as part of the conference’s presidential forum.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has consistently led polls since he announced his candidacy, pushed back on criticism of his racial justice record, noting former President Barack Obama’s implicit approval of his record.

“They did a significant background check on me – he wouldn’t have picked me if I was wrong on civil rights,” Biden said. 

The former vice president also visited local businesses in the Detroit area Wednesday, ahead of an evening fundraiser featuring several Detroit-area Democratic heavyweights.

A day before the convention, Biden released a detailed policy that would overhaul the criminal justice system in America. 

Biden touts African American support during SE Michigan swing

Biden said his proposal would shift the focus for drug-related crimes from incarceration to prevention, pair police departments with social workers and disability advocates, increase funding for public defenders’ offices, eliminate the death penalty, end cash bail, and end the federal government’s use of private prisons and other detention centers. 

But one of Biden’s opponents, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), was not sold on the plan. 

Cory Booker at the NAACP candidate forum | Andrew Roth

“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said in a statement Tuesday. “The proud architect of a failed system Is not the right person to fix it.” 

At the convention, Booker, who is African American, also criticized unnamed candidates’ strategies for courting Black voters, saying they largely amount to a photo-op. 

“We’ve got to have leaders who don’t just come and ask for our vote, but know our communities,” Booker said. “As your candidate, I will make sure that when we come to communities like Detroit, we don’t just talk to people, but we invest in those communities, elevate leadership in those communities, and make sure that ultimately the victory is shared in every community.” 

Biden’s record came under fire during last month’s first Democratic presidential debate, where U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who also is Black, attacked his history of opposing federally mandated busing. 

Kamala Harris at the NAACP candidate forum | Andrew Roth

At the NAACP convention, Harris said that while marijuana is being legalized by several states across the country, African Americans who were charged for selling the drug are still in jail for something others now profit from legally. 

“Those young men and women who were selling on the street are being excluded from this industry,” Harris said. “They should be first in line to get those jobs.”

Other policies Harris has proposed include a $13,000 pay raise for public school teachers and increased funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who has fallen sharply in national polls since his high-profile campaign launch, released his plan to promote equality in education ahead of the conference.

O’Rourke’s plan includes an investment of $500 million per year in a program that would create high quality teachers’ academies at HBCUs.

“While funding is important, it is also just as important that the teachers in that classroom look like the students in front of them,” O’Rourke said. 

On a similar note, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used his convention appearance to roll out a policy that would increase the number of Black doctors, dentists, nurses and mental health providers. 

Breaking with some of his opponents, however, Sanders said at the conference that he does not fully support reparations for slavery. 

“I worry that they’ll write a $20,000 check and then not have to worry about anything anymore,” Sanders said, apparently referring to the government.

Amy Klobuchar at the NAACP candidate forum | Andrew Roth

Sanders and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) both instead cited their support for a plan from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (R-S.C.) that would invest in impoverished areas.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has released a comprehensive economic plan targeted to Blacks called “The Douglass Plan,” addressed the issue of relations between police and the Black community — an issue over which he’s recently faced tough criticism back home.

“We have learned the hard way that if you take a racist policy and replace it with a neutral one, it’s not enough,” Buttigieg said. 

Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro also discussed policing reforms, including bringing an end to the federal government’s practice of providing military-grade equipment to police departments. 

April Ryan questions Elizabeth Warren at the NAACP candidate forum | Andrew Roth

Castro, who was the first presidential candidate to visit Flint, also has rolled out a policy aimed at addressing the effects of lead in drinking water, along with several policies related to housing access.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) spoke about housing at the convention, as well, promising to set money aside to provide assistance to first-time buyers in formerly redlined communities.

“Part of this housing plan looks at why we have so much disparity in this country, and it’s because of redlining,” Warren said. “We’ll provide first-time buyer assistance and get more African Americans into home ownership.”

President Donald Trump was scheduled to appear at the convention but canceled his appearance, which he said was due to the format change from a speech to a Q&A format. 

On Tuesday, NAACP delegates unanimously voted to support his impeachment.

Trump’s only announced opponent in the Republican primary, Weld, called the president a “raging racist” and the “most vivid example of a scofflaw and one man crime wave.”

“We can send a two word message to Donald Trump as he packs his golf clubs: you’re fired,” Weld said. 

Twenty Democratic presidential candidates will be in Detroit next week for the second presidential debates, which are set to air on CNN July 30 and July 31. 

Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth is a regular contributor to the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.


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