Juj Winn / Getty Images Moment

What 2020 Presidential Candidates Don't Understand About The Black Student Vote

'We want to be centered, and we want our politicians to be sincere about it.'

By Kenya Hunter

As more candidates enter the field for the 2020 presidential election's Democratic bid, Black student voters have engaged ourselves in the election process more than ever, and we understand the need for policy change that is radical and addresses our future directly.

While the Black voter turnout rate hit a 20-year low in 2016, it increased for voters between ages 18-29 by 1.1 percent. These two facts put young Black voters like myself at a crossroads, and lay bare both our desire to be involved with political change, and overwhelming skepticism that any one candidate will put the needs of young Black voters first.

Pundits talk a lot about the “Black vote,” as if we are a monolith or a singular endeavor to be won. We’re not, nor are the myriad injustices affecting us that are embedded in this country’s framework. As time goes on, the candidate who will excite Black student voters the most is one that is going to center us in their various policy proposals, and mean it.

When I had the opportunity to ask Bernie Sanders about reparations at the CNN Town Hall on Monday, April 22, I knew I needed to; it was a question that young people my age deserve to know. Senator Sanders often brings up his presence at the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, especially when he speaks with Black voters. Take the “She the People Forum,” for example, where young voters of color audibly booed the senator for once again mentioning his presence at the march. While Senator Sanders often points out his past work in the space, his 2020 platforms have yet to center solutions for injustices faced by Black people specifically.

So when I asked, “If reparations are not part of your plan to end the wealth gap for Black people, what is?”

He spoke of the 10-20-30 formula, which was introduced by Representative James Clyburn and Senator Cory Booker, himself a presidential hopeful. (It’s worth pointing out that Senator Sanders did not mention Booker in his answer to me.) The plan targets low-income communities, but does not specifically address communities of color or Black people. As one person on Twitter put it: “Wow. Bernie Sanders just all lives mattered reparations.” It’s also not surprising: The sentiment that the conversation of reparative justice can never focus on Black people specifically consistently disappoints voters my age, and caused general apathy in the 2016 election.

The issues go deeper than just the wealth gap, though. It’s also about who in the country deserves to be involved in the country’s political process. At the back-to-back town hall, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked if he believed prisoners should be able to vote; the student specifically singled out rapists and the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombings as her focus. Buttigieg confidently said, “No, I don’t think so.” (For his part, Senator Sanders expressed his belief that the right to vote is meant to be extended to even “terrible people.”) The CNN cameras actually caught my shock when the audience around me clapped, a lone Black girl who was surprised that a room full of young people could believe the right to vote would be off-limits for prisoners.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 45 percent of people in prison are serving time for drug-related offenses; they are not the Boston Marathon bomber, and many are not rapists, either. So who makes up the current carceral population? Disproportionately, it’s minorities: 37.7 percent of the prison population is Black, despite the fact that Black people only make up 12 percent of the country’s overall population.

In February, Senator Booker reintroduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize the substance at the federal level; Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana-related crimes. While the bill was not introduced as part of Senator Booker’s presidential campaign, it does serve as an important indicator of where his future policy proposals may be headed — and potential voters are watching.

In order to earn Black voters’s confidence, it’s crucial that candidates of all parties adamantly outline the disenfranchisement of Black people, and then offer a solution that potentially transforms the future of Black students and Black people at large. It is no secret where the likely Republican candidate stands on such issues. Despite this, not all Black people will automatically vote for a Democratic candidate, and the 2016 election showed that if we are dissatisfied enough, we’ll simply sit out on election day. While 94 percent of Black women who voted in the 2016 election cast their vote for Hillary Clinton, more Black people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 stayed home from the election four years later.

We are living in an age where women’s rights and criminal justice reform have become top priority conversations for Black students. During the 2016 election, the infamous 1994 Crime Bill proved to be a generational shadow for Hillary Clinton; she could not avoid being questioned by young Black voters for her support of the crime bill, and for the dark speech in which she coined the term “super-predators.” When she appeared at Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black college in Atlanta, to discuss her criminal justice reform plan, she was disrupted by AUC Shut It Down, a student grassroots organizing group based at the Atlanta University Consortium. She had intended to further her agenda with Black students; instead, she was confronted with the ways in which she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, ultimately expanded the prison industrial complex.

Joe Biden will also face these questions; he authored that crime bill, one which he now regrets/a>, given how it has substantially raised prison populations. It incentivized states to remain “tough on crime” with the promise of extra federal funding, at the expense of Black and Brown people. Couple that with Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, and it’s easy to understand why the former vice president will have a hard time getting Black students in particular to trust him, regardless of his status as President Obama’s BFF. Biden should not be blind to his impact in the field, either: A Democratic primary where Joe Biden leads could result in another drop in voter turnout for young Black students, mirroring the trend set in 2016.

Young voters’ wishes for accountability for a politician’s past actions shouldn’t be mischaracterized. While pundits and lawmakers alike undermine us by claiming we “don’t know enough” about realistic issues and just want a “perfect” candidate, it is understood that politicians are human and make mistakes. We also understand that these politicians were grown when they made these “mistakes,” which can sometimes lead us to question if their “evolution” from those mistakes is genuine. We don’t want pandering. We want strong, detailed policy that speaks to us, not over us.

So when it comes to candidates like Senator Kamala Harris, I want answers about her shifty history on policy issues and why she moved to the left side of the Democratic Party as a “progressive prosecutor.” In 2017, she co-sponsored a bill that urged states to eliminate cash bail, naming it an issue that disproportionately disenfranchises communities of color and lower income people. However, it’s easy to find quotes from her past that supported the complete opposite. In 2004, the then-San Francisco district attorney supported increasing cash bail in California, saying that it was “cheaper” for criminals to commit crimes due to the state’s low cash bail. At the CNN Town Hall, I was surprised to hear her talk about opposing the criminalization of sex work since, in her days as attorney general, she challenged a sex workers’ rights organization’s fight to legalize sex work. If she's had a change of heart, that’s fine — but I’m still waiting for the policy proposal to back that up.

In contrast, Senator Elizabeth Warren has released nine policy proposals, the most of any Democratic hopeful; two of them specifically center on Black people and young Black people. Her plan to incentivize hospitals for closing the death toll gap for Black maternal mortality shows she is paying attention and intentionally centering the effects of racism and disenfranchisement in America, and her student debt plan includes cancelling up to $50,000 in student debt for people who make under $100,000. Economists posit that this plan would completely cancel the student loans of close to 95 percent of borrowers, and according to statistics provided by the United States Department of Education, nearly half of Black student loan borrowers who started school in 2003-04 school year defaulted on student loans 12 years after entering college. In her Medium post, Warren states that her plan will “substantially increase wealth for Black and Latinx families.” This is the sort of centering we are asking for; Warren's intention is clear.

At the end of it all, Black student voters have a desire for conversations to be completed. We want genuine candidates who are willing to admit their wrongs, and show us what they'll do to make them right and regain whatever trust has been lost. We want policy, not pandering. We want plans, not conversations. We want to be centered, and we want our politicians to be sincere about it.