How Cory Booker’s failed campaign spurred progress for racial justice

Cory Booker speaks
Cory Booker Getty Images

Senator Cory Booker, who announced his presidential bid one year ago to the tune of a rattling drum-line, ultimately failed to find his beat.

Yesterday, Booker took to Twitter to suspend his campaign — the end of a once-promising journey mired in insufficient fundraising and unimpressive polling. The Rhodes scholar turned wunderkind mayor and influential senator seemed to have all the makings of a modern president. But after 20 years of swelling presidential expectations, Booker ultimately failed to resonate with voters, who perhaps fell prey to Joe Biden’s time-tested familiarity, Pete Buttigieg’s electrifying novelty, Elizabeth Warren’s policy prowess or Bernie Sander’s radical rhetoric.

But unlike the aforementioned front-runners, each of whom will take the stage tonight at the first all-white debate of this election season, Booker never faltered or flubbed when tackling the issue of race. And thanks to his persistence on the issue of systemic racism, and repeated calls for the legalization of marijuana, criminal justice reform and the historic study of reparations, Booker was effective in putting pressure on candidates to get real about race — and pushing them to pen policies aimed at dismantling systemic racism.

Many months before Booker’s most viral debate-stage zinger, in which he joked that Biden “might have been high” when he stated a refusal to legalize marijuana, the senator introduced a bill to remove cannabis from a list of controlled substances. The Marijuana Justice Act, which cited disproportionate arrests and incarceration rates for black people, marked one of the most progressive moves by the federal government to end the war on drugs to date. And for presidential candidates in Congress, the bill became a means to signal support for pro-black policies, and quickly earned co-sponsorship from Sanders, Warren and similarly departed candidates like Senators Kamala Harris and Kristin Gilibrand.

Booker’s fight to legalize marijuana was simply his latest act in reforming the criminal justice system. In March, Booker introduced the Next Step Act, which aimed to reissue voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals, reduce mandatory minimum sentences by half for nonviolent offenders and more. A step further, Booker vowed to offer clemency to more than 17,000 people incarcerated due to nonviolent drug offenses — the broadest act of clemency, if enacted, since the Civil War. And much like his response when asked about his crusade to legalize marijuana, Booker did not relent in keeping race at the core of his rationale. When the New York Times broached the topic with Booker near the end of his campaign, the Senator responded by discussing injustices faced by black men in Newark, who are more than 20 times likely to be killed by a police officer than their white counterparts. As Booker told the New York Times, “I mean, nobody is talking about criminal justice in the way that we’re doing it.”

Booker was right. While he failed to deliver his campaign message of national unity with a rousing clarity, when it came to issues of racial justice, he spoke plainly and powerfully. And of the presidential candidates who claimed support for reparations, or the financial recompense for black American slave descendants, Booker proved to be the only candidate who turned a campaign assertion into action. Booker’s proposal of measure H.R. 40, which arrived on the Senate floor on the 400th anniversary of African slaves arriving on American shores, aimed to form a commission charged with studying the longstanding consequences of slavery, and potential remedies. For American slave descendants like me, whose family experienced land theft in excess of $1 million more than 150 years ago, such a proposal marks the first step in a long fight for reparations. Moreover, Booker’s landmark “baby bond” proposal, which would provide every newborn with $1,000 and grow more quickly for children in poverty, offered a new approach to reparations aimed at uplifting black people by helping everyone in need.  

Booker is, of course, an imperfect warrior for racial justice. His tenure as mayor has sparked justified concerns about his record on education and early management of Newark’s police department. Such criticism, combined with his ongoing financing from Wall Street banks and other companies notorious for disenfranchising people of color, have certainly impacted his ability to break through to voters who prefer the grassroots movement-building of Sanders and Warren. But in contrast to Booker’s consistent rhetoric on race, front-runners like Sanders and Warren were late to offer their support for reparations, Buttigieg allegedly “misled” supporters of his Douglas Plan, and Biden, despite having popularity amongst black voters, continues to attempt recovery from a crime bill that devastated black communities.

But is a country that overwhelmingly opposes reparations ready for a president who regularly invokes slavery when describing the failures of American democracy? With Booker’s exit from the race, the answer appears to be a resounding “no.” However, while Booker’s ideas to transform racial justice fizzled before they caught flame, they certainly sparked dialogue necessary to jumpstart progress. And in a country where silence is often the preferred remedy to issues of race, Booker has already won.