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Opinion: Young Black voters helped Biden win Georgia. Democrats had better not take us for granted

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, a Democratic candidate in the U.S Senate race in Georgia, speaks in Jonesboro, Ga., on  Oct. 27.
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock speaks at a voting event at SluttyVegan ATL restaurant on Oct. 27 in Jonesboro, Ga. Warnock is one of two Georgia Democrats who could decide control of the U.S. Senate in a runoff election in January.
(Brynn Anderson /Associated Press)

Who would have guessed last month that Georgia would become the center of America’s political universe?

Well, I did.

When I saw Stacey Abrams narrowly lose her race for governor in 2018 to a man who oversaw his own election, I knew my home state had the ability to push a Democratic candidate over the top and silence liberal Yankees who stereotype the South as an arch-conservative monolith.

Thanks to the efforts of grass-roots organizers and extraordinary voter registration, outreach and mobilization, President-elect Joe Biden is projected to beat President Trump in Georgia by a thin but significant margin. This is the first time the Peach State has backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992.

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In January, Georgians will decide control of the U.S. Senate, as Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock face incumbent Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, in runoff elections. If Republicans win even one of the races, they will control the Senate and make it challenging for Biden to pursue his legislative agenda.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, young voters in Georgia (ages 18 to 29) were pivotal to Biden’s performance — especially young Black voters, around 90% of whom backed him. (Young white voters backed Trump, 62% to 34%.)

The energy I’ve seen from young Black people to go to the polls came from a desire to oust a far-right president who shows no respect for American democracy.

But that energy cannot be taken for granted, and if Democrats do not advance a bold, progressive agenda, they will not retain young Black voters like me — who are deeply skeptical about whether Biden will pursue centrist policies that won’t make a dent on deep racial disparities.

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My middle school classmate Chadwick Smith, who is now a 25-year-old graduate student in theology at Emory University, told me he voted for Biden even though he didn’t “feel like the change I really want to see in America will be done” under his administration.

Biden was Chadwick’s ticket off the Trump train. He ran on a platform that promised to address climate change, reform criminal justice and tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Chadwick believes the country can no longer wait for radical, transformative change in housing policy and policing, and is worried that Biden will merely pursue incremental reform. Biden, he said, should ban evictions and issue stimulus payments.

Chadwick believes Biden hasn’t made bold enough proposals — nor have Ossoff and Warnock.

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Ossoff is running on a platform that includes investing in infrastructure, protecting abortion rights and banning private prisons.

Warnock has called for more federal aid for Black and family-owned small farms, reducing healthcare disparities — like maternal mortality rates — and reforming, but not defunding, police.

Warnock, Chadwick tweeted, talks about “responsibly” funding the same police departments that “beat Dr. King and killed Rayshard Brooks” — a 27-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by Atlanta police in June and whose funeral was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock serves as senior pastor, a position once held by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..

This election was far from the “blue wave” pollsters predicted and liberals expected. Although Democrats were able to retain the House, their modest majority shrank. The party also failed to flip a single statehouse, including here in Georgia, where local party members believed a Biden win would give them control of the state Senate and, consequently, next year’s redistricting process.

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Centrist Democrats blamed progressive lawmakers like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for the setbacks.

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). “We lost good members because of that.”

Both Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez embrace the label democratic socialist. For young people like me and Chadwick, the term doesn’t necessarily have negative connotations — we think of countries in Europe and Latin America where people don’t go broke from healthcare bills and don’t face crushing debt for merely attending university. But there is a generational divide: for older and moderate voters, talk of socialism reminds them of communist regimes like the Soviet Union. And Republicans use that divide to their advantage.

Right-wing media also seized on calls like “defund the police” to scare away voters.

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Eric Schickler, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, told me that American voters tend to favor specific progressive policies — ending qualified immunity for police, for example — over abstract messages like “defund the police.”

The term Obamacare, he noted, “always polled much worse than any of its specific features,” which remain popular.

“The problem is that one may need slogans and broad frames to mobilize folks to fight for an issue, yet those slogans and broad frames are what conservatives use to fight change,” he told me.

Ossoff seems to be navigating this treacherous terrain right now with environmental policy. He has distanced himself from the idea of a Green New Deal but actually espouses progressive climate policies, the New Republic noted.

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I do not know the solution to this, other than that moderates and progressives need to agree on which policies to pursue and effectively message to the public how those policies can improve daily life.

The young people I spoke with agree.

My former high school classmate Tyler Alexander, a 25-year-old who works in marketing, told me he’s “salivating” at all the attention our state is getting.

“I’ve never felt more empowered to vote,” Tyler — the child of a white, liberal mother and a Black, conservative father — told me. “This is incredible.”

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Tyler will vote for Ossoff and Warnock with enthusiasm, but he is still peeved, as I am, that the Democratic establishment tried to shut out Bernie Sanders in 2016.

“The Democratic Party did my boy Bernie dirty,” Tyler told me. He voted for Biden in the general election.

For Tyler, Sanders’ call for universal healthcare is not that radical. Countries like Sweden and Canada have it — why can’t ours?

“It’s go big or go home,” Tyler told me.

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Kiana Jackson, 23, lives in Albany, a city of about 70,000 in rural Southwest Georgia. Jackson’s family saw their utility bills soar after the city emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot.

In June, the city billed her father $217 for water, gas, sewer and electricity. In July, the bill jumped to $464. In August, it increased again to $484.

Jackson saw no reason for the bill to soar that dramatically. Though the city, which declined to comment for the article, claimed to have based its numbers off the meter, her father, who is home all day because of his disability, never saw a worker read it, she told me. But the family’s name is on the bill, so they had to pay it, even if it meant skipping a mortgage payment.

Jackson said her temporary job with the Democratic Party this summer ensured her family did not fall behind in payments. But in a city where the median income is $34,493, “not every family can afford to pay $200 more on their bills,” Jackson, who now works for Black Voters Matter Fund, told me.

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The Senate runoffs have been at the forefront of my mind and getting national media attention. But the public service commissioner’s runoff is at the forefront of Jackson’s mind. The five-member commission regulates the state’s utilities. The statewide race to oversee north Georgia went to a runoff after the Democratic candidate, Daniel Blackman, came shy of ousting the Republican incumbent, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr.

Jackson said Blackman, whose platform includes providing affordable and clean energy, has engaged with Albany voters and activists. Jackson is encouraging her family and friends to consider his candidacy.

I know I will give Blackman a second look when I vote in the January runoff. Young people understand that it’s important to vote straight down the ballot, not just in national elections, because local races are often the ones that affect our daily lives the most.


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