As Civil Rights Era Fades From Memory, Generation Gap Divides Black Voters

ATLANTA — For years, Loretta Green has voted at her Southwest Atlanta precinct wearing the same custom T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of her first voter registration card, dated to 1960. The front of it reads: “This is why I vote.”

Since gaining the legal right, Green, 88, has participated in every possible election. This November will be no different, she said, when she casts a ballot for President Joe Biden and Democrats down the ticket.

But conversations with her younger relatives, who have told her they’re unsure of voting or considering staying home, illustrate some of the challenges Biden’s campaign faces in reassembling his winning 2020 coalition, particularly in key battleground states such as Georgia. While Green and many older Black voters are set on voting and already have plans in place to do so, younger Black voters, polling and focus group data show, feel far less motivated to cast a ballot for Democrats or even at all.

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“To me, voting is almost sacred. Look at what people went through. The struggles. The people that allowed themselves to be beaten,” Green said of the Civil Rights Movement that ignited her determination to vote in every election. “I think there are some young Blacks who probably feel like it didn’t even happen.”

Black voters have long been Democrats’ most loyal constituency, and high turnout from this bloc is crucial to Biden’s reelection. Any drop-off in support could imperil his chances of winning in November. And surveys have shown a striking generational divide within this bloc, driven by what many young people see as broken campaign promises and what party leaders have suggested is a difficulty in communicating Biden’s accomplishments to voters.

There is still time for Democrats to close this gap. But growing discontent from young voters, especially concerning the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip — illustrated in an April New York Times/Siena College poll that shows just 4% of voters younger than 45 strongly approve of Biden’s handling of foreign policy — underlines the scale of the response that may be required of the president’s reelection campaign to bring young voters back into the fold.

The stark difference between how older and younger Black voters respond to Biden and Democrats further highlights how different the messages to these voters will have to be.

“It is a generational divide. They don’t know the people who fought and died for their rights,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster, whose polling has found a nearly 30-point gap in support for Democrats among Black voters 18 to 49 years old relative to Black voters over 50. The latter group, he said, “does know those people. They saw that fight. Some of them were in that fight.”

Young Black voters point to higher costs of living, crises abroad and the old ages of both major candidates — Biden, 81, is the oldest U.S. president, and former President Donald Trump is 77 — as reasons for their discontent. They also say that they feel their lives have not improved under Biden’s presidency and that they have seen little of his campaign promises to lower housing costs, relieve student loan debt and promote racial equity.

These gripes are not unique to young Black voters. In polls, focus groups and interviews, record numbers of Black Americans across ages and genders have expressed disenchantment with Democratic leaders. And the generation gap in support for Democrats is not unique to one race. While most young voters support Democrats and turned out en masse during the 2020 presidential and 2022 midterm elections, many have also said they are deeply dissatisfied with the party and see less reason to turn back out for them.

“I can understand,” said India Juarez, 46, a Southwest Atlanta resident and Democratic voter. “You’ve got two people who really should be retired, enjoying their golden lives.”

Still, for older Black voters, many of whom see Trump as a threat to their fundamental rights, stopping him and other Republicans from reclaiming power in November outshines their frustrations with Democrats. By an overwhelming majority, Black voters continue to support Democratic candidates and some encourage the younger people in their lives to do the same.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., an influential Biden ally who led civil rights protests in college, said he had spent much of his time outside Washington on college campuses to encourage students to vote. But, he said, “it needs to be an informed vote.”

“I don’t want people going out there talking about, ‘There’s no difference between Trump and Biden.’ I’m going to show them what the differences are. I want them to see why you need to go out and vote,” he said. He lauded the older Black voters who encourage their younger relatives to register and cast a ballot.

Tari Turner, 52, a Black Democratic voter from Detroit, is one of them. She said she often encourages her son, Brice Ballard, 34, to vote in elections even when he is reluctant to.

“I make him vote. He votes,” she said. “I don’t play about him voting. I’ll go pick him up to vote.”

This November, she said she planned to vote and support Biden’s reelection — a fact she acknowledged tepidly. Ballard, however, said he would not vote this year, despite his mother’s urging.

“I just don’t feel a connection with either candidate,” he said, adding that he voted in the last presidential election. If he did vote in November, he said he would more likely support Trump because he felt he was economically better off under his presidency.

Ballard’s feelings align with another concern for the Biden campaign: a rightward shift among nonwhite voters that is particularly pronounced among young men of color. Trump and his campaign have recognized this and made some efforts to court Black voters in recent months. Still, many are rooted in stereotype and often offensive.

Biden’s campaign has aimed to encourage young Black voters to turn out through increased direct contact with them. Senior campaign officials for Biden underlined his campaign’s presence on college campuses, online and at music festivals and sporting events. They added that the campaign was hiring a director of campus engagement who will focus on mobilizing students at historically Black colleges and universities.

On the airwaves, the campaign is running several ads targeted to Black voters that emphasize the Biden administration’s work to lower health care costs and its large investments in historically Black colleges and universities. Democrats have also enlisted celebrities and local Black elected officials to serve as surrogates.

That hasn’t kept concerns from some Black community leaders at bay. The New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter mobilization group, has held more focus groups with voters and adjusted its talking points during canvassing operations to address disaffected younger voters and the policy issues that matter to them. That way, said Kendra Cotton, the group’s CEO, organizers can explain to young voters how government can work — rather than admonish them for declining to participate in the political process.

“This narrative that people have that ‘oh, you should vote because so many people died for you to have that right,’ that is not resonating with this new generation at all,” Cotton said. “And I think us continuing to propagate that narrative, no matter how true and rooted in fact that may be, is off-putting.”

Davan’te Jennings, the Georgia Young Democrats’ Black caucus chair, said he had held a range of conversations with younger Black voters who are not enthusiastic about voting. Some, he said, have expressed interest in supporting Republicans this November.

“They’re like, ‘We’ve been on this Democratic side for so long, they tell us all these things and nothing happens,’” he said. “Let’s see what’s over here on the Republican side.’”

Green, who said she, too, had concerns about young voters’ involvement, said she planned to volunteer with Biden’s campaign operation in Georgia to encourage young Black voters to turn out and to talk to them about the importance of their vote — something she sees as both morally and politically significant.

“That’s why we have to tell them our story. They don’t understand it,” she said. “They haven’t seen it. And if we do not continue to talk to them, tell them the history, then they won’t know.”

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