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At least half a dozen Democrats interested in the 2020 presidential nomination are speaking today at events commemorating the Martin Luther King holiday. NPR's Asma Khalid reports that this is really a reminder of how important black voters are in the Democratic primary.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When Elizabeth Warren announced her exploratory committee for president, the Massachusetts senator didn't just talk about a crumbling middle class. She also acknowledged the impact of race and racism on our economy.
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ELIZABETH WARREN: Working families today face a lot tougher path than my family did, and families of color face a path that is steeper and rockier.
KHALID: And she's not the only one. Here's New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," announcing her intentions to run for president.
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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: But you are never going to accomplish any of these things if you don't take on the systems of power that make all of that impossible, which is taking on institutional racism.
KHALID: Talking about institutional racism in a presidential campaign rollout feels new to Adrianne Shropshire. She's the executive director of BlackPAC.
ADRIANNE SHROPSHIRE: You see the candidates sort of centering these issues of racial justice that just didn't happen in 2016 in the same way.
KHALID: Shropshire says that's because the culture in the country has changed in the Trump era and because of a shift in public perception around police brutality. Quentin James is the founder of CollectivePAC. Its mission is to build black political power.
QUENTIN JAMES: In 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement was still new. I think candidates were unsure on how to respond to it.
KHALID: James says candidates now are a lot more nuanced when talking about police brutality. 2020 will likely be the most diverse field the Democratic Party has ever seen, with at least two African-American candidates, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. There is no doubt that they both have a level of credibility in the community. Booker has pushed to end mass incarceration, and Harris has spoken up about the rate of black maternal mortality. But the Reverend Al Sharpton says he was also surprised by just how well Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar have been received.
AL SHARPTON: And I thought Liz Warren had almost taken preacher lessons. I mean, they just connected better than I thought they would.
KHALID: Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, says there's a bonus for white candidates who can connect to black audiences.
CORNELL BELCHER: If you have a white candidate that, frankly, can give voice authentically to these issues in this space, it is counterintuitive in a way that, I think, helps that white candidate.
KHALID: Activists and analysts say it's not just about rhetoric. It's about how diverse your staff is, what your track record is and whether people believe you.
SHARPTON: This can't be a road-to-Damascus kind of conversion.
KHALID: That's Al Sharpton again. He's met with nearly every serious presidential contender, and he says candidates this year realize they cannot win the nomination without significant support from black voters. Cornell Belcher agrees.
BELCHER: You're not going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party if you are the candidate who's coming in fifth place in South Carolina.
KHALID: In more than half a dozen states voting on Super Tuesday, black voters make up at least 10 percent of the Democratic electorate. In some states, like Alabama, more than 50 percent of Democratic voters are black. Both Belcher and Sharpton say none of the candidates have yet offered a lot of details to black voters. But Sharpton says so far, at least, they are talking more about racial justice than before.
SHARPTON: Whether that is a political calculation or whether that's a sincere appreciation is what we've got to be able to, you know, see.
KHALID: In other words, as one analyst told me, the question is, will candidates talk the same way today, on MLK Day, as they do the next time they venture out into Trump country? Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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