By Ginger Gibson
NEWORLEANS (Reuters) – Winning the support of black voters in the United States was the focus of Democratic presidential hopefuls on Saturday, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who will address directly criticism about his record on race.
Black voters have played a critical role in the Democratic Party primary process, and winning the party’s nomination would likely be impossible without their support. Hillary Clinton’s strong support by black voters played a critical role in her securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
In New Orleans, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris announced a policy plan targeted at closing the racial wealth gap at an appearance at Essence Festival, a gathering for black women organised by Essence Magazine.
“Black Americans were excluded from participating in the first industrial revolution and the wealth it generated,” said Harris, who is the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and an Indian mother. “Now with the technological revolution, we must ensure everyone can participate in the wealth it creates.
In South Carolina, an early-voting state in the nominating contests that kick off next February, Biden will deliver a speech in the afternoon responding to recent criticism by Harris about his track record on race.
South Carolina’s primary is the first in which a significant proportion of the Democratic electorate – about 60 percent, is black.
“America in 2019 is a very different place than the America of the 1970s,” Biden will say, according to prepared remarks. “And that’s a good thing. I’ve witnessed an incredible amount of change in this nation and I’ve worked to make that change happen. And yes – I’ve changed also.”
Much of Biden’s early lead in the polls was fueled by strong support among black voters, but his support has appeared to wane in the wake of criticism about his position in the 1970s about busing of minority students to integrate schools.
Biden will also highlight his time as former President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“If you look at the issues I’ve been attacked on, nearly every one of them is for something well before 2008,” Biden will say, according to prepared remarks. “It’s as if my opponents want you to believe I served from 1972 until 2008 – and then took the next eight years off. They don’t want to talk much about my time as vice president.”
In a debate among Democratic contenders last month, Harris had called comments by Biden about having worked with segregationist senators “hurtful,” although she said she did not believe Biden is a racist.
Harris announced a $100 billion housing proposal that would help poor people living in rental properties or receiving public assistance for their housing to buy houses. The program would create grants to cover down payment and closing costs.
“So we must right the wrong and, after generations of discrimination, give black families a real shot at homeownership — historically one of the most powerful drivers of wealth,” Harris said.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker told the audience that the next president should have a track record of helping African-Americans.
“We cannot be a nation that is truly free until everyone is free,” said Booker, who is African-American.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Leslie Adler)