ATLANTA — Ask a young black voter in Atlanta about Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and you’ll likely be met with an exasperated sigh, a side-eye, or a grimace before they launch into a frustrated answer about the former vice president.
The young voters say they’re tired of Biden tying the promise of his campaign to former president Barack Obama’s legacy and what they see as older generations of black voters’ inability to see past that legacy in support of another candidate who just might push the country in a more progressive direction.
“It really bothers me!” Ayanna Ucheena Woodfolk, 18, a freshman at Spelman College, said of Biden’s stronghold on older black voters. “I think it’s because they think, He was with Obama, so he must be OK. But it’s really important to, even if they look good, listen to what they’re saying and at least attempt to learn about them.”
“If you’re paying a little bit of attention at all, it just seems like he doesn’t seem to have the gusto that I need. I feel like we need someone who’s going to be a champion for people like me, and he doesn’t have what it takes to be the president for people like me,” Ucheena Woodfolk added.
Over a dozen young black people who spoke with BuzzFeed News at a nonpartisan debate night watch party hosted by Black Youth Vote and Georgia Stand-Up at Georgia State University and at Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders rallies in Atlanta this past week said that there’s a clear generational divide that’s formed between older and younger cohorts of black voters when it comes to what they’re expecting from a presidential candidate. Older black voters’ willingness to quickly give their support to Biden is frustrating, they said, and concerning for their futures.
“I want change. I don’t want the next 20 years to look like the previous 20 years,” said Bryan Bloomfield, a senior at Morehouse College.
“They know he’ll move the needle just enough maybe, and I think they believe that’s good enough and any progress is better than no progress to them. I don’t believe that just moving two feet is enough — Malcolm X once said, ‘If there’s a knife in my back and it’s 9 inches deep and you take it out 6 inches, you haven’t done anything to help me really,'” Bloomfield said.
The Biden campaign pushed back on that characterization and connected BuzzFeed News with two students who volunteer and intern with the campaign through Students for Biden and with Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a 29-year-old Philadelphia state representative who has endorsed Biden’s campaign.
“He’s always made that case that you have to solidify the gains that you’ve made and then go further,” said Kenyatta.
The campaign pointed to programs it launched on college campuses to engage young voters, Biden’s plan to invest $70 million in HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, and Biden’s surprise visit to students at Texas Southern University after the September Democratic primary debate as examples of the campaign’s outreach to young black voters. “Many young people are just getting introduced to all of the candidates running, and we are using every opportunity to galvanize their support and ensure their needs and voices are reflected in our campaign,” the campaign said in a statement.
If Biden wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, it will be with the help of the substantial amount of older black voters that have backed his campaign since he entered the race in April. That support has made him a frontrunner in states like South Carolina, where black voters comprised 61% of voters in the party’s primary election in 2016. In two recent polls from voters in the state, Biden has lead other candidates with support from 44% of black voters.
“When you know someone, you’re more capable of trusting someone. This is a man who spent the last 40 years in the public eye when the record is there for you to see. You can trust him,” William Fairfax, 21, a Claflin University student who is interning for the Biden campaign, told BuzzFeed News.
“Also one thing that helps is that he was the vice president of the first African American president,” Fairfax added. “And for me and for a lot of people, it’s not hard to get behind him because you know who he is.”
But a South Carolina poll from Quinnipiac University this month, Biden trailed behind Warren and Sanders with young voters — 31% of voters between 18 and 34 support Sanders, 19% support Warren, and 15% support Biden.
Students who told BuzzFeed News they were frustrated with older generations found exactly that willingness to trust Biden because of his Obama administration credentials frustrating.
“I mean, the only reason Biden is doing so well is because he’s safe. He’s safe for those moderates and the older generation. We don’t need safe — we need change,” said Brigitte Choudhary, 18, a student at Georgia Southern University. “The older generation seems like they’re not ready to cross that line. They care about other things than the younger generation does. They care about social security and this and that, but there are too many problems in this country to keep playing it safe.”
“Everyone always talks about how can we bring back the fire of 2008 Obama, and it’s like, why are we settling for a candidate who won’t bring that fire,” asked Ayanna Akobundu, 21, a recent graduate from Agnes Scott College and a Warren supporter.
Kenyatta Jeffcoat, 21, a senior at the University of South Carolina-Upstate who organizes on her campus with Students for Biden, told BuzzFeed News she believes it’s going to take more students like her to convince others that Biden should be the nominee to turn the tide, but that Biden’s campaign has to also do that work on the “frontline.”
She said she often hears the same questions from students about Biden: What will he do for student debt, is he “really here” for young people of color, and how is he actually going to beat Trump. “Students nowadays don’t have faith in politics,” she said, particularly the students who voted for the first time in the 2016 election.
“They’re like, ‘We voted. That was our first time voting, and when we voted it seemed like our vote didn’t count. So what is he going to do to really get us out to the polls or what is he going to do with these policies that we want and these changes that we want? Why should we believe in him?”
Students told BuzzFeed News that their generation was concerned about issues like climate change, criminal justice, immigration, student loan debt, and what they see as the United States’ overeagerness to involve itself in other countries’ affairs. They said changes they believe are needed for the country can’t wait for older generations to become more comfortable with solutions to those issues.
“Maybe I don’t agree with everything a candidate is doing, but I believe that it’s my right to vote and my right to not vote for the lesser of two evils,” said Ucheena Woodfolk.
Young voters who spoke to BuzzFeed News repeatedly mentioned Sanders, Warren, and Andrew Yang as candidates who’ve captured their interest. They explained that they were supporting those candidates because they were presenting new ideas, like Yang’s universal basic income program, and speaking in a style that brings the issues they care about to the forefront of the primary.
Students told BuzzFeed News that they found it refreshing that Sanders and Warren were putting in some effort to win their support by holding rallies in the Atlanta University Center, an area comprised of four historically black colleges and universities in Atlanta, but they wanted to see them reach further into the black community.
“I would love to see the candidates reach out to less well-known schools like Prairie View, community colleges, places where most of the African American community actually is. Like, it’s great to talk to the black elite, but when are you ever talking to the average person? The black 18-year-old who didn’t go to college, because most of us don’t, who’s trying to figure out his life,” Bloomfield told BuzzFeed News outside a Sanders rally Thursday at Morehouse.
Sanders, who did well with young voters across the board in 2016, continues to be a favorite with younger black voters, too — but while many students said they like what he’s saying, and that he’s improved his approach to racial justice in particular from the last election, they’re not committed to voting for him, and some young black voters want to hear more about his plans for the future rather than his involvement in the civil rights movement in the past.
During a swing through several HBCUs in North and South Carolina in September, the Sanders campaign emphasized his connection with younger voters, and said it thinks those supporters could go home over the holidays and have conversations with their parents to convince them to consider Sanders.
Some young black voters told BuzzFeed News that they’d discuss the issues with their parents and grandparents over the holidays and others said they wouldn’t, but most said they didn’t believe those conversations would actually flip their support.
“They’re scared! It seems like older, southern black Americans are afraid to embrace change because they don’t think it’ll really happen,” Bloomfield said. “It seems like every time we embrace change it doesn’t momentalize in the way we thought it would. Like we thought Obama would give us quantum leaps from where we were versus where we are now and it hasn’t happened.”
“Those are my elders so it’s not my place in life to really tell them anything. It’s a theme in our community to respect your elders. I talk to them, but I mostly listen and I try to respectfully disagree,” Bloomfield said.
“I think a lot of older black people don’t pay attention and are kind of old school,” said Kylah Burnette, 19, a student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “Some of them are just more scared of Trump than actually getting us things we need.” She added that she would not vote for Biden if he becomes the nominee, because she sees him as being “only slightly more to the left of where Trump is” compared to Sanders.
Both Sanders and Warren held events at HBCUs this past week the day after Atlanta hosted the fifth Democratic debate.
Sanders' event at Morehouse focused primarily on funding programs for HBCUs and specifically focused on building on Sanders support from young voters of color. Sanders’ campaign touted that they had been traveling to HBCUs over the past week.
“What remarked me was at every school the first question from a black student wasn’t how we could benefit black students. The questions were about: How are we going to end the immigration crisis at the border? How are we going to have a planet for all of us to live on? That’s because it’s the history of black students to always think of other people,” Phil Agnew, a Sanders surrogate and activist, said onstage at Morehouse on Thursday. Sanders' speech was largely focused on funding teaching programs for HBCUs and closing disparities in black communities.
Warren’s event at Clark Atlanta University Thursday night was overtly aimed at young black women, as the senator seeks to build on some momentum she’s gained since the beginning of the summer with black women. Warren gave a speech commemorating the washerwomen’s strike of 1881, a moment of historic civil rights leadership from black women in Georgia. And she showcased some of the high-profile endorsements she’s received from influential black women, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who introduced her Thursday night.
“I’m kind of between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” said Jayla Chamblins, 19, a student at Georgia State who attended the Warren event. “I feel like the older people, they’re just comfortable, and the younger people, we’re not. We’re trying to push for change.”
Joe Biden would plan as president to invest $70 billion in HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. An earlier version of this story misstated the dollar amount. Kenyatta Jeffcoat's name was misstated in an earlier version of this post.