NEW ORLEANS — Half a million people attended the Essence Festival earlier this month to celebrate black culture. And these days, where black women go, so do 2020 candidates. In 2016, 94% of black women voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.
The festival comes on the heels of a Democratic debate that put questions of race front and center. Sen. Kamala Harris stole the show that night, partly by invoking her experience as a young black girl. The moment sparked birther-style attacks and questions about whether Harris, whose parents are Jamaican and Indian, has lived the African-American experience.
“Clearly she’s black,” said Lorri Saddler, Harris’ sorority line sister, who traveled from Atlanta to attend the festival. “She made the choice to attend Howard University, a historically black college. She represents African-American women. She pledged an African-American sorority.”
Harris did not grapple publicly with these questions. Instead, she made the case for her candidacy.
“The fight of black women has always been fueled and grounded in faith and in the belief of what is possible,” she told a packed crowd. “And that’s why Sojourner spoke. It's why Mae flew. It's why Rosa and Claudette sat. It's why Maya wrote. It's why Fanny organized. It's why Shirley ran, and why I stand here as a candidate for president of the United States.”
The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, also worked on his pitch — while polling near zero among black voters.
“I believe we need to invest in the future of black America with a Douglas plan,” he said. “That is as ambitious as the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. If America could invest in other countries. We're going to have to invest in our own. In our time. And it starts now.”
Buttigieg's debate performance may have raised his profile, but it was defined by questions about how he handled the police shooting of Eric Logan, a young black man in South Bend. The mayor used his time on the Essence Fest stage to apologize for past failures and express his desire to move forward.
“It's important to accept responsibility for what needs to change,” Buttigieg said during an on-stage question and answer session. “I hope now the conversation can be a forward looking one about racial equity in our time because every candidate, and frankly especially white candidates need to find their voices on this issue. ”
Asked if he can win the Democratic primary without black women voters, Buttigieg reframed the question.
“I don't think that a candidate would deserve to win a primary without seeking and earning the votes of black women,” Buttigieg said. “That's part of why we're here. It's part of part of why we're making sure it's clear how our proposals will benefit people of color. I believe that it would be not only politically wrong but unethical to leave any source of support on the table.”
This segment originally aired July 10, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO