How the Founder of Black Voters Matter Thinks About Bloomberg:

LaTosha Brown, a political organizer, at the offices of the New Georgia Project in Atlanta on Sept. 19, 2018. Credit...Audra Melton for The New York Times

And the way the nearly all-white 2020 field is talking about race and campaigning for support from black voters.
LaTosha Brown, a political organizer, at the offices of the New Georgia Project in Atlanta on Sept. 19, 2018. Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times
When the audio of Michael Bloomberg defending his stop-and-frisk policies in 2015 began circulating online Tuesday, LaTosha Brown, a founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, chose not to listen.

“I can’t get mad today, so I said I would watch this evening,” she said, only half-joking. “I’ve had enough racism in one day.”

In the audio recording, Mr. Bloomberg states that “ninety-five percent of your murders — murderers and murder victims — fit one M.O.,” before continuing: “You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city.”

Ms. Brown, who runs a nonprofit dedicated to voter engagement that she started in 2017, has not endorsed anyone in the Democratic primary. She has watched with increasing frustration how race is being discussed among the all-white top tier of candidates. Though there has been a discussion of race on the national debate stage, it has mostly focused on criminal justice and relative popularity among black voters (a fact Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pointed out during Friday’s debate).

Earlier this week, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. continued to frame his support among black voters as evidence of his own strength. “Guess what, it’s the base of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Biden said. Comments like these make Ms. Brown fear Democrats are taking black voters, who many of the candidates themselves refer to as the backbone of the party, for granted.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Ms. Brown discussed her view of the current field. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you think about the way race and racism are being discussed among candidates right now?

I think what we’re experiencing in this moment that there is always a residue of racism. Part of what we have seen is a boomerang effect from white politicians that saw or see black people as expendable. Including with Bloomberg, we see how insidious racism is in this country and how much it is embedded in the beliefs in the white leadership in particular. We’re still approaching black voters as if they don’t have a memory. The relationship of racism for them is very different than for us — racism is not something that we can get over.

For white people, you can say, “I said that 50 years ago,” or “I didn’t know at the time.” To the extent that you didn’t know the fullness of its impact, but what you really believed at the time is that black people are inferior to white people or that black people have a propensity to be more violent.

There’s a lot of discussion about the polls right now, particularly with Joe Biden’s enduring popularity with black voters in South Carolina. Is that a good indicator of how his policies are viewed?

The question isn’t about black people liking you, the question is are you creating an agenda where there is really going to be an advancement of black people? I haven’t seen it. I go back to Janet Jackson’s line: What have you done for me lately?

It doesn’t take being a president or a candidate for president to show that you are living a life that is being anti-racist. Part of what is coming up to haunt many of them is that there’s not a track record of what they have really done. You can say you believe all kinds of things, but what have you done?

Are Democrats talking about race in a more serious way than they have in previous presidential elections?

I have seen race elevated in the Democratic discussion in a way that we have not in the past. But the part that feels disingenuous is that I don’t think it’s on their own volition — we’ve got a white nationalist in office. I am not so sure we would be talking about racism without that, so it is more of a response than it is a sincere commitment.

I am glad they are responding and we are leaning into it. But at best what we’re seeing are Band-Aid responses, we’re not really dealing with structural issues. Folks at the bottom are taking the biggest hit, and it’s not good enough to repeat what we’ve said in the past.

I’ve spoken to many of these campaigns, including Bloomberg, and the question isn’t whether they are liked or whether they should apologize for the past. The question should be do they have a sweeping agenda that will really lift up black people in a systemic way.

Do you think voters are mostly hearing what they’ve heard in the past?

I think from some candidates, yes. You do have candidates who are talking about poor people in a way that we have not before. But I do not think that racism and structural class issues are two different things. I think part of it is who is leading this conversation. Their relationship with race and racism is distinctively different.

I believe that the majority of white people believe that part of our economic circumstance is related to some deficiency of our work ethic, or intellectual ability. But we know the reality is that there is not a single system that has not been designed to provide an advantage to white America.

What do you think of Mr. Bloomberg’s effort to reach out to black voters?

I’ve heard a lot about his plans to work with banks to have 1 million black people in new homes. That sounds good theoretically, but doing that will not be enough to change, in my opinion, the sweeping wealth gap. It doesn’t go far enough — at best it will help recoup some of the losses that folks had in the foreclosure crisis.

But it should be part of a larger strategy and agenda. It’s almost as if you’re saying, ‘I’m friends with the banks, I’m going to get them to give you a little more.’ It doesn’t deal with the fundamental way wealth is structured in this country. And it doesn’t matter if the price points are too high for anyone to afford.

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