Elizabeth Warren was on stage in Houston in April when a woman asked her what she would do to address the fact that for black women, the risk of death due to pregnancy-related causes is three to four times higher than it is for white women.
Warren pointed out that this holds true for well-educated and wealthy African-American women.
"And the best studies that I've seen put it down to just one thing: prejudice, that doctors and nurses don't hear African-American women's medical issues the same way that they hear the same things from white women," she said.
Warren's answer may have a long-lasting impact. Recent polls have suggested that Warren has struggled so far in her presidential run to gain widespread support among black voters. But in the audience at the She the People gathering were politically active women of color from across the country.
"[Warren] was able to respond to issues with a level of depth and sincerity on that stage that I think has reverberated 'til today," said Aimee Allison, who organized the event. "She talked really heart to heart with this group, and she impressed 2,000 organizers from swing states across the South and Southwest, and people sang from the rooftops."
Warren was one of eight presidential hopefuls at the forum — including minority candidates Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro — but according to several people present, it was Warren who made the strongest impression.
Women of color are a key Democratic constituency. In the last presidential election, they made up one in three primary voters in the early primary state of South Carolina, according to She the People. And in 2008 and 2012 — years when Democrat Barack Obama won the White House — turnout among women of color exceeded the national rate. In 2016, women of color turned out at rates below the U.S. average.
'The Least Of Thy Brethren'
Several activists told WBUR that communities of color no longer want to support candidates who just ask for their vote at election time. They want to see involvement in their communities.
Warren shows up several times a year at Roxbury's 12th Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached when he was a student at Boston University's divinity school. Last year, during a service commemorating King's assassination, Warren read from her grandmother's King James Bible. She chose a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples: "[I]nasmuch as you did it to one of the least of My brethren, you did it to Me."
And then she tied that message to the situation in America.
"It's tough for a lot of people out there," Warren said, "and what that says to me is that we have a bigger obligation than ever, a responsibility to act for these, the least of thy brethren, and to do it to honor Dr. King, and to do it to honor the Lord."
Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, was there that night, and said Warren was "received ecstatically."
"The response, which was tremendous, it happened that way because people knew that she understood their issues and their needs," said 12th Baptist associate pastor Jeffrey Brown, "and as a result of that, they were able to relate directly to all of the things that she talks about."
Brown, who's a Warren supporter, says she and her husband Bruce Mann first came to worship shortly after Brown endorsed Warren during her Senate campaign.
"And she's done that many times over the years, so when people talk about her sincerity and her faithfulness to the cause, that's as much a literal thing for her as it is a political thing," Brown said. "When she attends church at 12th Baptist, she always brings her Bible, and her and Bruce sit in church. We always want her to speak, but most times, she doesn't want to talk. She just wants to be among the people and wants to worship like everyone else."
Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, also supports Warren's presidential bid. He says as his relationship with Warren grew, so did the congregation's.
"She also demonstrated to the community how much she cared for the issues that folks in the community were dealing with," he said. "Whether it was housing, whether it was education, whether it was employment, whether it was gentrification, she understood and articulated the same issues that the African-American people in the community felt good about, so it was a natural fit."
Lagging Support In South Carolina
Warren polls well among nonwhite voters in progressive Massachusetts. In the last WBUR poll before her Senate re-election last fall, 68% of nonwhite voters had a favorable view of her. (The poll didn't measure favorability among black voters specifically.)
But she has yet to poll well among African-American voters outside of this state.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found Warren's national support clearly lagging among black voters.
And in South Carolina, a Charleston Post and Courier poll conducted a month ago found her in second place overall, behind former Vice President Joe Biden. But among blacks, who are expected to make up a majority of Democratic primary voters there, Warren was fourth, behind Biden, Bernie Sanders and Harris.
"Quite frankly, I'll bet you that those numbers are the same throughout the South," said Michael Curry, former president of the Boston NAACP. "Those are the same people who are very much appreciative of [Biden's] support for President Obama as vice president. ... The African-American electorate right now is saying, 'We need to get rid of this president.' And who has the best chance of getting rid of this president? I think people are leaning heavily towards Joe Biden because of that."
Curry said many African-Americans in the South have seen Warren, but they don't know her yet. Boston pastor Culpepper recognizes the problem. He says he's introduced Warren to ministers in South Carolina and Mississippi.
"I know that her numbers are low right now in the African-American community, but they're going to grow," he said. "I think the more and more folks hear about her, the more and more folks hear what she's saying, the more and more folks know what she stands for, the more and more her numbers are going to increase."
A Diverse Campaign Staff
One likely asset: the diversity of her campaign staff.
Monica Cannon-Grant was invited to a meeting of Massachusetts black leaders at Warren's campaign headquarters in Boston.
"I remember walking in and looking around at her staff and I go: 'Oh, okay. This is amazing.' " She added: "Regardless of how much we want to downplay it, representation matters. The amount of diversity on her campaign is truly amazing."
The day we spoke, Cannon-Grant's townhouse in Roxbury was full of packing boxes. She was moving out.
"I'm tired of dodging bullets," she said.
As the founder of the group Violence in Boston, Cannon-Grant works to mitigate the impact of violence in Boston's communities of color. She supports Warren.
"For black women, we're trying to find the candidate that best aligns to the things we're passionate about, the things that are concerning for us [as] a community," Cannon-Grant said. She said she's talked to women all over who like Warren.
But how well Warren does in reaching out to community organizations may depend on the community. One Asian-American activist told WBUR she wishes Warren's staff would reach out more when formulating policies. Idowu, though, of the Black Economic Council, praised Warren for the way she includes community input.
Idowu says he has not decided yet whom to support, but like others, he's impressed by the breadth and depth of Warren's plans to create wealth in the black community, to reduce violence, and to reform the criminal justice system.
Warren's challenge now is to persuade African-Americans in the rest of the country that she is a reliable partner in redressing the injustices they face.
This segment aired on September 9, 2019.