This story is the first article to be published as part of StudentNation’s Vision 2020 Election Stories from the Next Generation, stories reported by young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We’ll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of the next month.
On the night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Courtney Coffey heard the sound of bullets ringing outside her Louisiana home. When she went outside to look, her friend’s car, adorned with a large pro-Obama bumper sticker, was riddled with holes. Coffey said she “just knew” the attack was in response to the first Black president’s win.
“That was the first taste,” said Coffey.
When Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016, Coffey felt a knot of dread in the pit of her stomach. The bullet holes were a precursor; this, she realized, was the culminating backlash. The past four years under Trump only confirmed her fears—but it also fueled her participation in local and federal elections. “This election will tip what the next 20 years will look like,” said Coffey, the 33-year-old practicum director for graduate students at George Washington University’s School of Public Health.
Some younger Black women view this presidential election as an opportunity to consolidate and increase social, economic, and political power for marginalized people. They want more than just promises and idolization from candidates. They want policies that will improve their lives and their communities. They are dissatisfied with Trump and weary about issues like student loan debt, health care, reproductive rights, and income inequality. For many Black women, voting is still a way to mobilize this power.
So is demanding justice and change by taking to the streets. Recent protests across America in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed and others were the result of years of violence and abuse against Black people and people of color. The Black Lives Matter movement is led by a generation of young leaders, many of them Black women, who have learned from civil rights activists like Diane Nash and Fannie Lou Hamer about what it means to hold systems of power accountable. During the protests, Black women have also been critical about the lack of response and justice for Black women and girls who have been murdered and abused by police officers, men, calling out the systems of power that dismisses their needs.
And they’re doing it for good reason. The country continues to systematically oppress Black women. Black women have experienced the highest unemployment rates during Covid-19. Black girls are suspended in school at a rate six times higher than white girls. Black women experience higher levels of violence and are killed at a higher rate than any other group of women. As the ACLU put it earlier this year, “The Legal System Has Failed Black Girls, Women, and Non-Binary Survivors of Violence.” According to a study conducted by the Georgetown Law Center, in the United States young Black girls are perceived as “less innocent” and treated more like adults than like children.
Despite these historical, systemic inequalities, Black women have always shown up. They are a powerful voting bloc, and their votes have substantially contributed to the victories of the first Black president, senators, and other elected officials across the country. Black women overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008 and ’12. And in 2016, 94 percent of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, according to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research, helping Hillary Clinton earn the popular vote. The outcome of the 2018 Senate midterm election in Alabama hinged on Black women voters, helping a Democrat win a Senate seat for the first time in 25 years. Nearly 16 million Black women are eligible to vote and 67 percent are registered, according to Higher Heights for America, a nonprofit that advocates for Black women voters and politicians. “One thing about Black women voters, we don’t go to the polls alone. We bring our house, our block, our church, our union, our sorority,” said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights for America. “This year, we are going to do what we’ve always done.”
For Nykidra Robinson, the president and CEO of Black Girls Vote, the 2020 election is about legislation that will help her community. “This is the perfect time for Black people to hijack the Democratic Party,” said Robinson. “We demand policy in exchange for our vote.”
Robinson, 37, founded the organization in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in 2015 of fatal spinal injuries he suffered while in Baltimore police custody.
“We need policy; we need lives changed; we need Black businesses; we need Black people thriving and not just surviving,” said Robinson. She said she doesn’t just want symbols of hope anymore.
Carr agreed that Black women deserve a “return on their investments” this year. “For Black women, this is not an Obama moment when you were inspired by a candidate,” Carr said. “We want candidates to do two things: hold the line on gains we have made over the last 50 years and protect the rights that we are seeing being rolled back in real time.”
Living at the intersections of youth, race, and gender, millennial and Gen Z Black women differ in their approach to the political process from older Black women and voters. According to Azuree Bateman, a 24-year-old living in Washington, DC, most older Black voters don’t always accept younger voters’ support of progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders. “We have been told all our lives, ‘You guys are the future,’” said Bateman. “So, if I am old enough to vote, if I’m old enough to do this, don’t you think I’m old enough to make a conscious decision?”
Bateman believed that the protests this year were “inevitable” because young people like her were fed up with the disparities and inequalities around the country. “Coronavirus has caused us to really stop and look at everything that’s wrong,” said Bateman. “I’ve never seen such an increase of Black people calling for policy changes. It’s not just justice anymore; it’s policy changes. That’s birthed a whole new generation of organizers in their own right.”
Like Bateman, Chelsea Torres, a 29-year-old employee of the University of Maryland, wants the country to know that Black women voters are not a monolith. “Especially in this primary season, it’s been like, ‘All Black voters like Joe Biden,’” said Torres. “I didn’t actually know that many Black people that were like, ‘Joe Biden’s my number-one pick.’ There were a bunch of people who were fine with him if they had to.”
Torres said she wants a candidate who has been vocal about concerns like Black maternal health. She is expecting a baby and is particularly concerned about the country’s response to COVID-19. “I want to make sure a candidate that I support is a good person to an extent,” said Torres. “If I have to trust them with something extreme, I want to know they aren’t going to go out of their way to make it the worst-case scenario for me.”
Others echo Toress’s desire to see someone in office who they feel understands them.
“Representation really matters,” said Coffey. “Having your voice heard in this democratic process is crucial, and I want to get more people that have my interests at heart, or maybe have a better understanding of my lived experience.”
The lack of support for women candidates this election concerned some Black women, like Gaelle Ivory, 31, of Washington, D.C. “One thing that has struck me is the number of candidates that there were and who’s remaining are the two white men. They always seem to make it, no matter how good the other candidates were,” said Ivory, a Howard University administrator. “We have to really look at our systems that allow us to have two white male candidates, yet again.”
A July poll released by Politico noted that 60 percent of millennials and Gen-Z wanted to see Joe Biden pick a Black woman as his running mate. Seemingly, Biden listened. On August 11, Kamala Harris became the first Black and South Asian woman to be nominated for the office of vice president of the United States.
Nationally, less than 27 percent of millennial and Gen Z voters believe Trump deserves to be president, according to a poll conducted by Isos, and 77 percent of Black Americans believe that Trump and Republicans in Congress are racist, according to BlackPac.
“I just don’t believe he’s the right fit for any political position. It’s no doubt that he has a narcissistic personality,” said Kenyardda Callaham, a 25-year-old private health care coordinator from Washington. The election is simple for her. “I am voting this year hopefully to get Donald Trump out of office,” Callaham said.
Bateman, the young activist, said Trump’s presidency has contributed to the rise in racial tension throughout the country. “You look at the surge in KKK rallies that have happened, the surge in hate crimes, I think for him to get reelected just puts the entire country at stake, so many marginalized communities in more jeopardy,” said Bateman, whose sheer motivation to vote is Trump.
A candidate once backed by white supremacists like David Duke, Trump has not condemned racism in American nor said the names of the hundreds of Black and Brown lives cut short by police violence. This year, he has even denounced the Black Lives Matter protests as “discriminatory” and “bad for Black people.”
Since 2016, Trump’s policies have been a threat to many structures young Black women depend on such as the Affordable Care Act and LGBTQ+ rights. Some Black women voters also pointed to what they believe are racist immigration policies and Trump’s appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices aiming to overturn Roe v. Wade as reasons they’re so invested in this presidential election.
The Trump administration has also gained more criticism for its response to COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans. The president casually refers to the deadly virus with racist terminology like “Kung Flu,” and, since March, he and members of the Republican party have rejected advisories from the CDC and experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Lawmakers around the country and in Congress have backed bills supporting voting by mail in November, as fears about the spread of the virus could affect voter turnout.
Christina Greer, PhD, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, believes this crucial election is not about picking a flawless or favorable candidate.
“People say, ‘Well, the system won’t change if we just go with the lesser of two evils,’ and I argue that sometimes one person is less evil than the other,” said Greer. “You might get some change. With Trump you are guaranteed to get nothing.”
The fight to get Trump out of office is shared even by prison abolitionists like Angela Davis, who said that she would vote for Biden in the upcoming election.
“The election will not so much be about who gets to lead the country to a better future, but rather how we can support ourselves and our own ability to continue to organize and place pressure on those in power,” Davis said in an interview with Democracy Now! “I don’t think there’s a question about which candidate would allow that process to unfold.”
Greer said Black women don’t have the “luxury” of skipping elections. Black women have been voting legally in America for only 55 years, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “We’re the newest to the party, but we also have the most to lose because of the intersection of race and class,” said Greer. “But that often explains why we over-perform at the ballot.”
The perception that a majority of women in America agree when it comes to the political process is a false one, according to experts like Greer. “White women vote Republican, but Black women vote Democratic so overwhelmingly that it creates a gender bias,” said Greer. “But there isn’t.”
Despite the uncertainty of the upcoming election, voting remains a priority for young Black women who want to see the political power, representation, and policy changes they’ve invested in that are needed to drastically improve the nation, their communities, and personal lives.
“Black women are always the ones who are asked to save folks, whether or not we get thanked or supported for it,” said Ivory. “We need to give Black women the credit they deserve.”