The Guardian: ‘They barely mentioned us’: Atlanta’s black voters frustrated by Democratic debate
“Cory’s back!” yelled an attendee at a Democratic primary debate watch party at Atlanta Technical College, a few miles from Tyler Perry Studios, the debate venue.
Cory Booker, one of two black senators in the field of candidates, had just landed a line of attack at the frontrunner, Joe Biden. “This week I heard him literally say that ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana,’” Booker said. “I thought you might have been high when you said it.
Booker’s remark and subsequent commentary about the impact of marijuana criminalization on black people and Latinos drew the loudest approval from the watch-party crowd, hosted by the New Georgia Project and Swing Left and other political organizations, on an otherwise quiet evening.
The organizations hosted a panel of campaign surrogates and activists from around the country, and some rounds of “ratchet presidential trivia” immediately before the debate viewing. Washington-based Mondale Robinson, who founded the Black Male Voter project, hosted a roundtable in the space just before that. They collaborated to engage black voters and to address the black issues they hoped to hear at the Atlanta debate.
But in a city considered the black American mecca, it took close to an hour and a half for the debate moderators to ask a race-specific question – and even more time to discuss hot-button issues that affect black voters in Georgia and over the country. The crowd, which started with about 100 black millennials, dwindled to about 20 by the debate’s end. Those left in the crowd – and organizers who watched elsewhere – noticed the delay.
“I was disappointed at the fact that two of the most controversial issues concerning Georgia – reproductive rights and election integrity – were only discussed in the last 11 minutes of the debate,” Howard student and Atlanta native Keri Felton said.
Felton appreciated that Kamala Harris, a child of Jamaican and Indian parents, mentioned the failures of candidates to fully engage black voters. Harris’s criticism of “‘candidates for historically coming in at the 11th hour with a shallow attempt to get the black vote, especially the black woman vote, needed to be said”, Felton added.
Council member Khalid Kamau, who represents a district in South Fulton, a city just outside of Atlanta that is among the blackest in the country, initially only said he was “disappointed” with the debate. He elaborated later with a provocative metaphor.
“These candidates and the media came to Atlanta, to the Atlanta University Center [a collection of historically black colleges and universities], Paschal’s restaurant, and told us how important we are. Then they get on TV and barely mention us. It’s like dating a fuckboy,” Kamau said.
Almost 90% of black voters in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton, compared to 37% of white voters. Atlanta, a majority black city, is thus ideal, it appears, to dig into black issues for a Democratic party that relies on black people for their voting base in presidential elections. But even Atlanta has become a flashpoint for larger national socioeconomic problems – including income inequality and gentrification – that many local organizers say have not been adequately addressed in Democratic debates or by the candidates themselves.
“There are two different Atlantas,” Sankara Lumumba said at the Community Grounds Cafe, south of downtown Atlanta. The south-west Atlanta native volunteers with the Community Movement Builders collective. “For working-class ATLiens,” Lumumba said, referring to Atlanta residents’ nicknames, “it’s not working out for us. We’ve gotten rid of public housing, the city is becoming less black, the administration of this city doesn’t match up to what is being publicly put out there.”
Community Movement Builders largely organizes to fight gentrification. Amid a handful of Atlanta United and University of Alabama flags that hang in front yards in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of the city, where the organization is based, are “stop gentrification” signs scattered on the community’s lawns.
“There’s a black political elite that’s teamed up with the economic elite and they run the city,” Kamau Franklin, the organization’s founder, said. “They don’t run it for working-class or poor black folks. They run it to further capitalist development. It’s a whitewash of what the black Mecca is supposed to be.”
“It’s almost like a marketing scheme,” Zahir Netjer, another volunteer, added.
Nse Ufot, the executive director of New Georgia Project, responded similarly about the city’s inequality when asked whether the debates and candidates have adequately discussed black voters. “They have not,” she said.
“I think candidates are obsessed with providing solutions for the middle class. We have a very real problem with the working poor and poverty. Almost 2 million people have moved to the state in this past decade, and it’s manifested itself in income inequality. And it’s not just in Atlanta.”
But instead of discussing these issues, which are evident in major American cities with significant black populations, the conversation in the primaries, Lumumba said, is largely “who can beat Trump”.
Nzinga Netjer, an educator, teaches in Rockdale county, a suburb of Atlanta that has experienced white flight. She said displacement “started with the 1996 Olympics. We’re seeing a lot of those effects with increasing poverty in the suburbs.”
For the primaries, Netjer said, “sometimes you’re not focused on who the best candidate is, but the person who you think can win. That’s not always the person who is winning for me.”
Kamau said he appreciated that the debates have been pushed further left around policies like universal healthcare, free public college and a $15 minimum wage, but said he was concerned at the absence of nuanced discussions about the Democrats’ voting base beyond the urban electorate.
“Since the Great Depression, black people have lost millions of acres of farmland in the south. There are hundreds of thousands of black farmers. It’s the kind of issue that unites blacks and poor whites and working-class people in general,” he said.
Towards the end of the night at the watch party, a man waved a T-shirt with the phrase “the south got something to say”, a quote from Outkast’s André 3000. For many southern black voters, it appears the debates and primary candidates have a long way to go to prove they are listening.