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2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders Address The NAACP


Ten presidential candidates spoke to the NAACP in Detroit today. Now, Democrats have sparred over issues of racial justice in recent weeks, and there was some of that today. But many of the candidates said the biggest threat to racial justice, as they see it, is President Trump. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Joe Biden has gotten a lot of heat recently about his record on race. But here, as he spoke to the oldest civil rights organization in the country, the former vice president was welcomed like an old friend.


JOE BIDEN: Hey, folks. Look. It's good to be back. I've had the chance to be with you all my whole career. You got me started.

KHALID: Biden defended his record on civil rights. He insisted Barack Obama would never have picked him as VP if there were legitimate questions about his past.


BIDEN: He thought it was good enough for me. They did a significant background check on me for months with 10 people. I think my - I doubt he would have picked me if those accusations about my being wrong on civil rights was correct.

KHALID: It's a response the crowd overwhelmingly applauded. Earlier this week, Biden released a plan to reform the criminal justice system. And today he was asked about his evolution. He had championed the 1994 crime bill, which some say led to the mass incarceration of African American men. He continued explaining that decision today.


BIDEN: We had a gigantic epidemic in America of violence, particularly in African American communities.

KHALID: But Biden also acknowledged that times have changed and says the focus now needs to be on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.


BIDEN: Every major initiative needs to be reformed. And we have now a systemic problem and too many African Americans in jail.

KHALID: It's a response that some in the crowd might accept but not necessarily Biden's rivals, particularly New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Here he is speaking to reporters.


CORY BOOKER: I'm disappointed that it's taken Joe Biden years and years, until he was running for president, to actually say that he made a mistake and that there were things in that bill that were extraordinarily bad.

KHALID: Booker has long pushed for major criminal justice reform. He says Biden's plan is not bold enough.


BOOKER: For a guy who helped to be an architect of mass incarceration, this is an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country.

KHALID: Biden's campaign then attacked Booker's record as mayor of Newark in what's become a tit for tat. The intensity of this fight is a reminder that it's impossible for any Democrat to clinch the nomination without substantial support from black voters. Candidates are touting their plans for a black agenda, whether it's a promise to offer $7 billion for minority entrepreneurs or $100 billion to increase minority home ownership. But they're also focused on a common foe - President Trump.


BERNIE SANDERS: We have a president who is a racist.

JULIAN CASTRO: In the face of a president who is the biggest identity politician to come along in the last 50 years.

KAMALA HARRIS: It is a moment in time where we are being required to look in a mirror and ask a question; that question being, who are we?

KHALID: That's Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro and California Senator Kamala Harris. The candidates were here a day after members of the NAACP unanimously voted to support impeaching President Trump. The NAACP's members lean left, but they have previously welcomed Republicans, including George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The vote is a sign of how dangerous some black voters see Trump. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has previously called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings, and she reiterated that here.


ELIZABETH WARREN: This is a moment in history. And every single person in Congress should be called on to vote and then to live with that and vote for the rest of their lives.

KHALID: It's a response this crowd wanted to hear. The tricky thing for Democrats is that they're not entirely sure it's a response that could win them an election.

Asma Khalid, NPR News, Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANU KATCHE'S "WALKING BY YOUR SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.