BALTIMORE — Acknowledging that she is “not a person of color,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sought Friday to make the case that her liberal policy prescriptions stand to benefit minority communities, which would be key to her fate in a 2020 presidential bid.
“As a country, we need to stop pretending that the same doors open for everyone, because they don’t,” Warren said in a commencement address at Morgan State University, a historically black institution. “I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin.”
Her speech comes as Warren is mulling a White House bid and trying to regain her footing after stoking outrage on the left by releasing a DNA test in October intended to prove she has Native American ancestry. The test angered some minority leaders who found it offensive that she would use genetics to prove ethnicity.
Warren has never tried to join a tribe though she has identified as Native American at times. Warren released the test in response to critics, including President Trump, who claimed the family lore about her ancestry was false.
The blowback from releasing the test halted Warren’s momentum as an early Democratic favorite for 2020, and she is trying to focus on policy and strengthening ties to nonwhite communities.
In her remarks here, Warren touched on many familiar themes, including the greed of Wall Street and the role of government in reining it in — but with an emphasis on how minority communities are impacted.
“Rules matter, and our government — not just individuals within the government, but the government itself — has systematically discriminated against black people in this country,” Warren said.
During the financial crisis of 2008, she said, “millions of people — black, white, Latino, Asian — lost their homes. Millions lost their jobs. Millions lost their savings — millions, tens of millions, but not the people at the top.”
“The bank CEOs just kept raking in the money,” Warren said. “Two sets of rules: one for the wealthy and well-connected. And one for everybody else. Two sets of rules: one for white families. And one for everybody else.”
Warren also dwelled on her humble upbringing in Oklahoma and included a dig at President Trump, who, she said, “kisses up to autocrats and undermines voting and basic democratic institutions.”
She also included some traditional words of encouragement for the students.
“Everyone will tell you to work hard,” she said. “Teachers. Parents. Coaches. And I agree. Under the rules of commencement speakers, I am required to say, ‘Work hard.’ And you should.”
“But I’m here with a bolder message,” Warren continued. “It’s time to change the rules . . . Rules matter. And you have the power to make this country a more perfect union — to make it the nation you want it to be.”
While Friday’s address was Warren’s first at a historically black college or university, she has long championed an issue with the potential to impact students across the board: debt-free college education.
One of the first pieces of legislation she introduced as a senator was a May 2013 bill to reduce the interest rates that students pay on federal loans. More recently, she joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in pushing a measure that would make college education free for families making less than $125,000 a year.
Morgan State University President David Wilson said he had extended invitations to several officials to speak at Friday’s commencement. “Her office immediately responded to us,” he said of Warren. “She enthusiastically said ‘yes.’”
Warren is taking what she’s described as a “hard look” at a presidential bid.