If you’ve heard it time and time again—Black voters are the cornerstone of the Democratic party, even as they have, historically and presently, faced substantial obstacles to having their voices heard at the ballot box. What is less certain, however, is to what degree young Black voters will turn up at the polls.
On Tuesday, Sept. 22, BET will shine a spotlight on young Black voters, televising a virtual dialogue held between Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and a panel of student leaders from HBCUs around the country. The conversation was recorded on Friday, Sep. 18, the first Black Voter Day.
BET will air the special, “Black America Votes: The Kamala Harris Interview with HBCU Students” on its website and across its social media platforms tomorrow, which also marks National Voter Registration Day. Recognized on the third Tuesday of September, National Voter Registration Day typically sees a surge of registration in the hundreds of thousands. During the 2018 midterm elections, 865,000 Americans registered to vote. Organizers say they are looking to reach record highs this year, with many groups and businesses launching their own initiatives and tools: Girl Trek’s Black Girl Justice League will have its own voter registration portal, while Sirius XM will host a special program, “The Vote Must Go On: In person or By Mail” on its Urban View Channel 126.
Participating in BET’s panel conversation will be students from Harris’ alma mater, Howard University, as well as Spelman, Morehouse, Florida A&T, Carolina A&T, Tuskegee University and Hampton University, among others. BET noted that many of the universities represented in the panel are in key battleground states, and several of the panelists will be first-time voters.
Young voters, generally, tend to vote at much lower rates than older voters. Many blame this squarely on apathy, but voting rights experts note that young voters have been actively targeted for voter suppression. A 2019 New York Times article observed that between 2014 and 2018, the number of college students casting a ballot doubled; these rates were quickly met with more roadblocks to voting on college campuses, particularly in states where GOP strongholds are seen to be eroding.
The BET special will hopefully provide a peek into the concerns and interests of young Black voters, who have been decidedly less enthusiastic about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden than their elders. A Time article from August, citing data from American University’s Swing Black Voter Project, found that institutional distrust helped fuel that disengagement.
“Young African Americans don’t have confidence that the system will or can function in a way that will advantage their lives,” said Sam Fulwood III, a fellow in the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “They have no evidence—or little evidence—that the system will improve their lives. When they engage with the system, more often than not, it is adverse. In some ways, it is destructive and life-threatening to them.
Young Black people are statistically more likely to be victims of police brutality. They’ve also seen local, state and federal governments increasingly divest from the institutions that are supposed to care for and develop them, like public schools and universities. Due to the coronavirus, many will be graduating into a job market with limited prospects, and stagnant wages have not been keeping up with increasing amounts of student loan debt (an issue that disproportionately affects Black grads) and housing costs.
Still, Harris offers hope here. A proud Howard Bison, she has specific inroads with young Black voters attending HBCUs. And as the same Time article noted, 73 percent of Black voters under 30 said they would back a Biden ticket with a Black veep. Provided Black people have their votes counted fairly come November, now that Harris is on the campaign trail, Fulwood echoed many pundits when he told Time, “the Black turnout now is going to be bigger than it would have been before.”