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Black students to 2020 Dems: We want to see policies, not pandering

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USA TODAY talks with at Morgan State and Howard University about the 2020 , before Democratic candidates forum at Texas Southern. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Jada Grant hasn’t decided who will get her first-ever vote for president next year.

The freshman at Morgan State University wants candidates to talk about how they would create more jobs in cities like Baltimore, ensure that former inmates can vote and help students like her finish college without a mountain of debt.

“I’ve seen the rhetoric, but I haven’t seen the policies,” the 18-year-old computer science major said one recent afternoon.

Grant is part of a bloc of potential voters that Democratic presidential candidates hope to win over at a forum being held at Texas Southern University, one of more than 100 historically black colleges and universities around the country. She the People, a national network of advocacy groups led by women of color, is hosting the forum Wednesday in Houston that will feature eight of the 2020 Democratic candidates.

It will be the first of its kind to focus on issues important to women of color. And the forum’s venue puts the spotlight on young voters of color at HBCUs, which have a long history of facilitating and supporting political organizing. Some Democratic candidates already have come courting at HBCUs like Jackson State University in Mississippi and Howard University in Washington, D.C. 

The forum, which begins at 2 p.m. EDT, will include separate question and answer sessions with Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Interactive guide: Who is running for president in 2020? An interactive guide

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Students want to hear plans

Young black voters who spoke to USA TODAY said they want candidates to address issues such as increasing the minimum wage, overhauling the criminal justice system, and pushing for more money to help struggling HBCUs expand research projects and fix crumbling buildings.

“Making the effort to come to our institution and just talk to us and tell us about what it is that you want to do for our country will really set the tone and give that edge to certain candidates,” said Taylor Jones, 21, a junior and a student government representative at Howard University.

“We can’t make an informed decision if we never see you,” she said.

Jones said she was disappointed with her Democratic option when she cast her first vote for president in 2016. She didn’t like that Hillary Clinton had once supported a crime bill during her husband’s presidency that increased mass incarceration. She also felt like Clinton sometimes pandered to black voters.

“Sometimes people just don’t speak to you,’’ Jones, who is from Cleveland, said. “And she just didn’t speak to me.”

Grant, who is part of a campus chapter of Black Girls Vote at Morgan State in Baltimore, said for too long Democrats and Republicans have ignored black voters.

“A lot of the time our agenda gets swept under the rug,” she said before heading to a class on differential equations.

Historically, black voters have overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton won the support of 89% of black voters compared with Donald Trump’s 8%.

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‘Default’ party

Still, several HBCU students voiced skepticism about the Democratic Party’s commitment to addressing issues they care about. Among them was Kurt Kennedy, a junior at Morgan State.

Kennedy called the Democratic Party “black people’s default” and said he “absolutely” feels like the party has taken African American voters for granted.

“Black issues often get pushed to the wayside’’ or barely discussed, said Kennedy, 21, a Democrat from Baltimore.

Kennedy said, like him, many young blacks are passionate about progressive issues such as criminal justice reform, gun control and energy policies.

“I know it takes like a lot of political capital to get stuff like that through or even to the table, but that’s what young people want,” said Kennedy, a physics major who said he listens to author Ta-Nehisi Coates while studying.

The Democratic Party “would be quite remiss if it lets this opportunity pass and not engage this sector of voters,’’ said Rickey Hill, retired chair of the political science department at Jackson State University. “They have to be reckoned with. They have to be embraced.”

The field of Democratic candidates is the most diverse ever. It includes six women, two African-Americans, a Latino and the second openly gay man to run for a major party presidential nomination in history.

Jones of Howard University praised the diverse field but said neither gender nor race will be deciding factors in who she supports next year.  

“Being much more thoughtful about actual policies is more important to me,” she said.

Among the candidates Jones is closely watching is Warren, whose progressive platform appeals to her, particularly the candidate’s call for a more fair tax code. 

She noted that California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Howard alum, is flirting with the possibility of two women on the ticket. “I love that,’’ Jones said.

Adarian Williams Sr., a senior at Grambling State University in Louisiana, said he’s paying attention to candidates’ positions on gun violence, pay equity, healthcare and education.

“It is imperative that we get involved now so that when the time comes to vote we know the knowledge behind the candidate,” said Williams, of Simsboro, La.

He hopes candidates will also visit smaller communities and college campuses. 

“As we move forward it is important to have our voices heard as students and minorities,” he said.

The option to stay home

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Wendy Smooth, a political scientist at Ohio State University, said voter mobilization is crucial: “there’s always the option to stay home.”

Every Monday at Morgan State, Grant, Kayla Jackson and others from Black Girls Vote set up a registration table in the student union. Last fall, the group coordinated bus trips to early voting sites and even led a march to a nearby polling site.

“I didn’t realize how many students weren’t registered to vote …,” Grant said. “That really shocked me.”

While encouraging young people to go to the polls can be challenging, a Harvard University Institute of poll published this week suggested growing interest. The poll found 43 percent of voters 18 to 29 years old said they’re likely to participate in presidential nominating contests – up from 36 percent four years ago.

Americans between 18 and 23 are expected to make up one in 10 of those eligible to vote on election day in November 2020, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. Of those voters, blacks are expected to make up 14%, Hispanics 21%, and Asian and Pacific Islanders 4%. Whites are expected to make up 55%, Pew found.

Hill said Democrats have to tailor their messages to attract young black voters, many of whom have been leading protests against the deaths of their peers in police custody and heading groups such as Black Lives Matter.

“They cannot run from these issues,” Hill said of candidates.

For example, Hill said some Democratic presidential candidates have sent up “trial balloons,” talking about issues such as reparations in part because they hope it resonates with younger black voters.

Earlier this month, Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, introduced a bill to set up a commission to explore reparations proposals for African-American descendants of slavery. 

Keanne Williams, a senior at Jackson State University, said candidates shouldn’t ignore the issue and should work to “make something happen.”

“We definitely deserve reparations now,” said Williams, 22, from Chicago. 

Black women demand more: Black women want to be seen more as candidates, not just reliable Democratic voters

Defeating Trump a priority for some 

Amos Jackson III, a senior at Howard University, said Trump’s policies have fired up some students.

“We’ve seen a direct attack on our generation,” said Jackson, 22, a political science and African-American Studies major from West Palm Beach, Florida. “Regardless of who it is we just want to make sure that Donald Trump is not president in 2020.”

Students called Trump’s policies and rhetoric divisive, pointing to what they call his discriminatory remarks about immigrants and negative comments about Haiti and African countries.

Trump triggered outrage over his reaction to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that led to the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester. In remarks that appeared to draw a moral equivalence between white nationalists and the counter protesters, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” at the demonstration.

A survey by the national NAACP last summer found 82 percent of black voters felt disrespected by something Trump said or did. 

Black women demand more: Black women want to be seen more as candidates, not just reliable Democratic voters

Black students stepping up efforts

Black students are stepping up efforts on campus to register their peers, invite candidates to speak and even apply to work for presidential campaigns.

Soon after Jackson graduates from Howard next month he hopes to join Harris’  campaign. 

“It’s one thing to just sit back and tweet or make comments or just register people to vote,” said Jackson, who interned in Harris’ Senate office. “I actually want to be able to bring my thoughts and my opinions to the table as someone who is a 22-year-old black male in America – that’s from Florida, that’s from an HBCU.”

Tyree Burnett, a junior at Grambling, wants a candidate who is a humanitarian and progressive.

“Conservative ideals are definitely driving America now,” said Burnett of Chicago, who is majoring in public relations. “We can’t have another president that’s so conservative. I want (the president) to be more accepting of differences.” 

Burnett said he has felt overlooked by candidates, but expects that may change as more recognize the potential of his voting bloc. 

“It’s cool to be young and black,” he said. “I feel like the next election they may target us more.”

Contributing: Aamer Madhani in Chicago

 

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