Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has recently made headlines for releasing a DNA report that she hoped would prove her Native American ancestry, to the anger of many in Native American communities.

But while speaking at the December commencement of Morgan State University, the largest historically black university in Maryland, Warren took a different tack.

“I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin,” she said. “Rules matter, and our government — not just individuals within the government, but the government itself — has systematically discriminated against black people in this country.”

The message, in other words, is no longer at risk of being interpreted as “I am one of you,” but “I understand the challenges that your community faces — and I want to help.”

This was not news to the graduates of the university, whose mission has long been focused on providing more opportunities for the state’s black residents. And it wasn’t news to Warren either, who has spoken about racism repeatedly in the past. But her grasp of this perspective is probably news to communities who may be less familiar with the lawmaker, who is a star within some circles of liberalism.

Behind the DNA controversy

Following the release of the report, Warren found herself on the receiving end of criticism from those who questioned whether the lawmaker understood minority communities well enough to win their support in her quest for the presidency.

Belonging in Native American communities is not something a DNA test can prove, replied many of her critics and those more familiar with the cultures of America’s indigenous community.

Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement that Warren’s release of a campaign-like video claiming her lineage included Native American ancestry “makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.

“Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

But despite the criticism, Warren stuck by the move — apparently not without taking note of her critics’ points. Since then, her messaging is making clear she is aware of the unique challenges people of color face in the United States — challenges she does not grapple with as a white woman. But she seems to believe she can help address them.

Why this may be the right move

While her name has been floating around for a while as a potential Democratic presidential nominee, Warren doesn’t crack the top five in the latest CNN poll on possible 2020 candidates. And with both of the only black lawmakers on the list polling higher than Warren, it’s likely that Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) poll even higher when the data is controlled for voters who look like the crowd that gathered in Baltimore to hear Warren speak.

One of the most influential voting blocs in the Democratic Party is black women. It’s fair to surmise that if Warren is going to convince Democratic voters that she is the best person to take on President Trump in 2020, she is going to have to win over a lot of black women. And after the 2018 election, which saw historic numbers of Latinos elected and a surge in the number of Asian American voters at the polls, effective advocacy of policies won’t be the only thing Democratic candidates will need to do in 2020. They will need to grasp the particular challenges people of color face in Trump’s America.

We’re quite a ways from Election Day 2020, but not so far that those hoping to succeed Trump in the Oval Office can’t put in the work to round up support. After a rough fall, Warren seems to be trying to move in that direction.

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