When Liz Herring arrived at George Washington University as a freshman in 1966, she entered a capital city in the throes of the civil rights movement. Just three years after a quarter-million people had crowded the National Mall to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress was debating civil rights legislation as violent protests continued across the country.
Yet, little of that political unrest reached Kappa Alpha Theta, the all-white sorority the future senator from Massachusetts would soon pledge. Yearbook photos show Ms. Herring in a group of smiling young women, corsages pinned to their white dresses, hair perfectly flipped up at the ends.
The young Ms. Herring, who fought her mother to attend college away from her conservative hometown, went to rush parties and meetings, charity events and the annual “goat show,” a sketch comedy performance for all of the Greek organizations, where a master of ceremonies defended sororities as a “unifying force” for the school. No Black woman had ever been offered acceptance into any of the sororities on campus.
More than half a century later, the young college coed, who now goes by Senator Elizabeth Warren, led the charge in Congress to require the Pentagon to rename bases that honor Confederate military leaders. She spent much of her time on the campaign trail during the Democratic primary campaign talking about the racial wealth gap and systemic discrimination, and proposing plans on housing, maternal mortality, child care and other issues, which had an explicit focus on racial justice.
She has emerged, according to activists and organizers, as one of the most racially progressive white politicians in the country.
She’s also the only white woman still under serious consideration to become Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate, at a time when some Democratic leaders are pushing for more racial representation on their ticket.
“She did the work and continues to do the work,” said Angela Peoples, the director of Black Womxn For, who recently co-wrote an op-ed urging Mr. Biden to select Ms. Warren as his running mate over several Black women. “That’s the model that I would love to see other Democrats follow.”
In many ways, Ms. Warren’s evolution on issues of race is a preview of the journey many white liberals are on now. In the past decade, Democrats have been moving steadily to the left on racial equality and criminal justice. That shift became a leap after the death of George Floyd in police custody in late May, with majorities of Democratic voters now expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ms. Warren wasn’t always outspoken on the specific cause of racial justice. For much of her academic career and even after she entered politics, she remained most vocal on the central cause of her career, economic inequality as it affects all Americans. Her most politically defining misstep was over an issue of race, when she took a DNA test to demonstrate her purported Native American heritage and a backlash followed.
Allies say her awakening traces the arc of much of her life, with the beginnings of a worldview coalescing when she was a student at Rutgers Law School in Newark, where racial unrest several years earlier had turned the institution into a hub of civil rights activism. As a law professor, her work on bankruptcy illuminated the systemic barriers Black Americans face and helped convince Ms. Warren that race was intimately intertwined with inequality. As a presidential candidate, she made tackling racial disparities a central part of her mission.
Some Black strategists and officials attribute Ms. Warren’s changing focus to political opportunism, saying she started speaking about racial justice only as she began expanding her national profile. Her embrace of issues of race and equality during the primary campaign failed to resonate with many Black voters, even as prominent racial justice activists showered her with support.
Ms. Warren declined to comment for this article.
“Her evolution is great, but her evolution is one of convenience,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina State legislator and a supporter of Senator Kamala Harris, a rival for the vice-presidential nomination. “A lot of people find stuff when you’re running for president.”
Yet as Democrats cast their eyes toward winning back the White House, some activists see Ms. Warren’s journey — from a segregated high school in Oklahoma City to racial justice fighter — as a political template in a country that is shifting rapidly on issues of racial equity. In her life, there is a way to understand the journey of some other white Democrats, who may find their views on race shifting far from those they learned in their youth.
Not ‘one person of color’ anywhere
As a student at Northwest Classen High School, Ms. Warren’s world was an overwhelmingly white one. Located in an affluent area of Oklahoma City, the school was an embodiment of the kind of segregation created by decades of discriminatory housing practices.
Of the thousands of students, only a handful were Black, according to former students and teachers. The first few Black faculty members, including Clara Luper, a noted local civil rights activist, wouldn’t arrive until two years after Ms. Warren graduated. In a speech years later, Ms. Luper recalled protests outside her classroom window and boys chanting racial slurs at her in the hall.
After Ms. Warren’s father lost his job, her family struggled to stay in the district so their children could attend the school, considered one of the academically strongest in the area. Friends described Ms. Warren as conservative at the time, and don’t recall spending much time discussing civil rights, even as protests, sit-ins and integration efforts roiled her still largely segregated city throughout her high school years.
Dr. Katrina Cochran, a childhood friend who would go on to become a psychologist, said that Ms. Warren had been deeply conscious of the stigma then associated with having a mother who worked outside the home and that she had displayed an interest in economic inequality that would define her career. But the topic of race didn’t often come up between the two girls.
“It was so clearly segregated,” Dr. Cochran said, of their high school. “I look back on it now, and there wasn’t one person of color that I recall anywhere, except in the janitorial or kitchen staff. That’s how we grew up.”
Ms. Warren left Oklahoma City for George Washington University eager to expand her horizons beyond the confines of her upbringing.
“I had never seen a ballet, never been to a museum and never ridden in a taxi,” Ms. Warren recalled in her 2014 memoir. “I’d never had a debate partner who was Black, never known anyone from Asia, and never had a roommate of any kind.”
As an older cousin also had, a young Ms. Warren found her way into a sorority, pledging the Gamma Kappa chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta. The university had been officially desegregated in 1954, when it began admitting Black students, but the sororities on campus remained a bastion of discrimination.
Sorority life on campuses today often remains divided by race, and historically Black Greek organizations, founded more than a century ago during legal segregation, can be places where Black women seek sisterhood. (Ms. Harris joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest historically Black sorority, as an undergraduate at Howard University and has spoken about how meaningful it was.)
The first Black Greek group didn’t come to George Washington until 1975. In the late 1960s, Black students were permitted to rush sororities and fraternities but were never accepted. The girls were greeted with a smile, according to their accounts in the student newspaper at the time, but then rejected — some repeatedly. Many were not informed of specific requirements, including a recommendation letter attesting to their “moral character” from someone in their hometown.
Greek life on campus was sheltered and exclusionary, a culture reflected in the “goat show” that took place the year after Ms. Warren pledged her sorority. At the event that year, in another sorority’s performance, three students appeared onstage in K.K.K. hoods in a skit they said was intended as political satire. Ms. Warren believes she did not attend the show, according to her staff, because her debate team was traveling to competitions out of state the same weekend.
School administrators tacitly condoned segregated Greek life, even as the newly formed Black Student Union made desegregating sororities a top priority.
“You know there’s not very much we can do,” Nan Webster, the president of the Panhellenic Council, the governing body of sororities, told a Black rushee, according to a 1968 report in the student newspaper.
When a Black woman tried to join Ms. Warren’s chapter, her membership was voted down by a few sorority sisters who were “clearly of the Southern attitude,” said Carol Cushing, a former Kappa.
“To my recollection, no one talked about race or civil rights,” recalled Ms. Cushing. “As far I know, every single sorority was totally white.”
In the spring of 1968, 200 students marched on campus to demand more rights for Black students. By that fall, the sorority was ordered by the university to insert a nondiscrimination clause in its bylaws. Ms. Warren would not be there to see those changes: In the fall of 1968, she married her high school boyfriend and transferred to the University of Houston.
‘That was Liz’
The young Rutgers law student made his case to other members of the law review.
Shouldn’t the all-white organization include some students of color?
“It certainly hit me at that meeting that there wasn’t one person of color on the law review,” recalled Louis Raveson, the student who had broached the subject. “I thought and said to my colleagues, ‘This is not OK.’”
Mr. Raveson proposed reserving some spots for nonwhite members. “I recall very clearly there was only one person who supported that,” he said. “And that was Liz.”
By the time Ms. Warren began her legal studies at Rutgers Law School in the fall of 1973, she was married, a former teacher and a mother. She was focused on balancing her studies with caring for her young daughter and was not as involved in civil rights activism even as she was becoming more aware of racial inequality around her.
But on campus, the environment was changing. Six years earlier, racial tension in Newark had exploded into days of rioting and rebellion. In response, the law school — which came to be known informally as the People’s Electric Law School — created legal clinics to assist the city’s Black residents and formed a minority student program to increase the diversity of its student body.
“Discussions about race were everywhere at Newark and at Rutgers at that time,” said Mr. Raveson, who is now a professor at the law school. “I have to think that being at Rutgers and being in Newark must have had a profound effect on Liz.”
At the University of Houston Law Center, where she was hired as an assistant professor in 1978, she largely focused on trying to get tenure, said John Mixon, a retired University of Houston law professor and a colleague of Ms. Warren’s.
“Her growth at our law school was more in the direction of trying to find an academic theme to work with than it was in civil rights or anything of that sort,” he said.
Her academic portfolio broadened, however, as she began delving deeper into her academic research on consumer bankruptcy, colleagues said.
Dissatisfied with the conventional narrative — that people who went bankrupt were victims of their own poor economic choices — she set out to determine why people went bankrupt by analyzing data and visiting courthouses to uncover the individual stories behind the filings. What she found surprised her: Many families who were going bankrupt were middle class.
And she and two colleagues at the University of Texas, Jay L. Westbrook and Teresa A. Sullivan, made another discovery through their research that would come to shape her views on systemic inequality. “We found some real evidence that there were disparate impacts on people by ZIP code that implicated race,” Mr. Westbrook said.
Stephen Burbank, a colleague of Ms. Warren’s at the University of Pennsylvania law school who was involved in her hiring there in 1987, saw the effect of that work.
“I believe that finding out what was happening to people, including minorities, was very, very influential in the development of all sorts of her views and policy positions,” he said.
Reflecting the ‘diversity of America’
When Ms. Warren arrived at Harvard Law School in the 1990s, the school was undergoing something of an evolution. Students were battling the institution over racial and cultural diversity on the faculty and had even recently sued the school, contending that its hiring practices were discriminatory.
On campus, Ms. Warren was a popular and demanding teacher. David Wilkins, a former colleague of hers, recalled that she joined the admissions committee — generally considered unglamorous — where she pushed to make Harvard a law school that “reflected the diversity of America.”
She also became a mentor to young female law students. One woman, Chrystin Ondersma, who is now a law professor at Rutgers, said she had applied to Harvard with the goal of studying critical race theory and gender studies, and she remembered meeting with Ms. Warren to discuss her interests. “If you really care about gender justice and racial justice, then you really need to focus on bankruptcy and commercial law,” Ms. Warren responded.
It was in those years at Harvard that Ms. Warren’s reputation as an expert on the intersection of race and economics grew. She also switched her political party affiliation, in 1996, from Republican to Democrat.
As Congress debated bankruptcy legislation, Ms. Warren became a pro bono adviser for Wade Henderson, then-head of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Washington office and a fellow graduate of Rutgers Law School. Even then, Mr. Henderson was impressed by Ms. Warren’s understanding of the role race plays in economic inequality, he recalled.
When she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the bill in 1999, Ms. Warren argued that Black and Hispanic homeowners would be disproportionally harmed by the legislation.
“She already had a sensitivity to those issues that had been honed in other places,” said Mr. Henderson, the former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
In 2004, Ms. Warren was invited to speak at a symposium on critical race theory at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. The symposium’s organizer, Dorothy A. Brown, an expert on race and tax, wanted to have a symposium “that looked at areas not normally associated with systemic racism,” she said, like corporate law and bankruptcy.
When Ms. Warren agreed to come, Ms. Brown said, “I was over the moon.” She recalled in particular that Ms. Warren had spoken about how Black college graduates were more likely to file for bankruptcy, because of the student debt they carried.
“When she presented, she freaked everybody out with her research,” Ms. Brown said. “She blew us all away.”
Ms. Warren would publish an academic paper that fall, “The Economics of Race: When Making It to the Middle Is Not Enough,” in a volume connected to the symposium.
In her own paper, Ms. Brown wrote that the volume “makes a genuine contribution to the literature by creating the space for scholars who have not previously written about or explored issues of race to do so.”
The observation came with an accompanying footnote: “See, e.g., Elizabeth Warren.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.