This story is one of three narratives in our “The way we live politics” package; check out its companion pieces about marriages that cross party lines and friend groups that bridge the political divide.
Jayme Beasley grew up listening to her father talk about surviving the Vietnam War. “I remember asking him about being in the military. I was maybe 10 or 11. And I was like, Why did you go?” she says from her Stone Mountain home. When Jerome Beasley explained to his daughter that, because of the draft, he had no choice, Jayme’s curiosity turned to confusion. “That made me start to ask why. Why does anyone have to do something?”
His observations about the inhumanity of the war and the senseless politics underpinning it inspired the younger Beasley to keep asking questions. Now 26 and a political science doctoral student at Clark Atlanta University, Beasley studies progressive, pan-African political views espoused by activists such as Communist-feminist journalist Claudia Jones, who was convicted of “un-American activities,” and Civil Rights organizer Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael), who coined the term “Black Power.” Beasley also cohosts the podcast Politics OR Politiking.
Despite their 44-year age gap, the father and daughter find that their political ideologies aren’t too far apart: They both were early supporters of Elizabeth Warren, citing her encyclopedic grasp of a wide range of policies; they are equally critical of what they see as Bernie Sanders’s inability to build bipartisan relationships; and neither will easily overlook Joe Biden’s involvement in the 1994 Crime Bill. (Though they will vote for him in November, as they did for Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
But they disagree on how effectively the Democratic Party is courting Black voters. Jayme thinks the party is too comfortable rallying behind politicians—including Biden and even his running mate, Kamala Harris—who pander to older Black voters instead of putting its support behind a more progressive agenda. “For people my age, they’re too safe,” she says of party leaders. “They’re not as liberating or critical of the system as a whole as we would like for them to be.” She also is less forgiving than her father is of Biden, calling him a “lazy” campaigner who relies on his former vice presidency to appeal to older Black voters instead of working to connect with younger ones.
Jerome says “lazy” is unfair. “I think the pandemic gives him more reason to say, I don’t have to campaign too heavily,” he says. “I can understand that. I’m not too happy about going out. I have no medical conditions, but still, I have age. I would think that caution is everything right now.”
“He was being lazy,” his daughter insists.
“You have your opinion. I have mine,” he says. “That’s the difference between being 26 and 70. It’s like night and day.”
Nationally, the political divide between younger and older Black voters is more vast than the divide between younger and older white ones. According to national polls conducted late this summer, white “likely voters” between the ages of 18 to 29 were more likely to support Biden than those over 65, but the opposite was true of Black voters: Biden had stronger support from older Blacks than from younger ones, with a wider margin separating them compared to their white counterparts. (Neither the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests nor the choice of Harris as a running mate did much to change Black voters’ support for Biden.) And with the Democratic party relying on significant Black turnout to defeat President Trump, motivating Black voters, old and (especially) young, will be crucial to the party’s success. That goes double for Georgia—a swing state with one of the nation’s largest Black populations.
There are other profound generational differences among Black voters, according to a poll conducted earlier in the summer: While 78 percent of older Blacks said they were “definitely motivated to vote,” only 29 percent of younger ones were. And more than three-quarters of older voters found the Democratic Party “welcoming” to Black Americans, compared to less than half of younger ones.
With November 3 drawing closer, however, the Black voting bloc likely will further coalesce to overcome some of its generational differences, according to Morehouse College political science professor Matthew Platt.
“My sense is that this divide [ultimately] will not show itself in this election,” Platt says. “I think the divide probably will still exist and will continue to manifest in Democratic politics in a variety of ways going forward, but I think most [Black] people are on board [with Biden].”
Platt says one of the best ways Biden can still win over young voters is by focusing on the pandemic. “That is actually the most important thing,” he says. If you’re a young person, “you would like to go out and live a life that you thought you could live in your 20s, and right now, you can’t because of Covid.”
Rick Hart, a junior at Morehouse College, was “politically active” growing up in his native Virginia, but his investment in the progressive movement wasn’t fully realized until Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, when Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams lost to Brian Kemp in a tight race wrought with charges of voter suppression.
“I was always trying to rationalize where I stood on the spectrum,” Hart says. “And then I got to Atlanta, and Stacey Abrams was running for governor. That’s when I think I started to shift leftward.”
After initially mulling support for Warren and Sanders, though, Hart settled on what he believes is a more pragmatic choice: He decided to back Biden, believing that he is best poised to defeat President Donald Trump.
“We can elect somebody that better understands the issues and is willing to change where they are right now and adopt broader policy patterns, or we’re stuck with another four years with what we’ve had,” Hart says. “And I don’t think that alternative is what we want at all. Anything is better than what we have now.”
Born in 2000, Hart is a part of a generation distinguished by tragedy and hardship. When he was just a year old, the United States was attacked on 9/11. In 2008, the country began its descent into a housing crisis and the Great Recession.
Enter Barack Obama, who ushered in an era of hope and change, political catchphrases that to many young people were more than just empty slogans—at least for a while.
“After eight years of that, he leaves, Trump comes in, and then you realize it’s all broken. It always has been broken,” Hart says. He points out that Covid-19, which has further exacerbated such societal failures as inadequate healthcare and systemic racism, is the third major crisis to grip the country in his short lifetime. “We were raised in all of this,” he says of Generation Z. “We’re done. We’re done. We know what we want.”
But even when skeptical, young Black voters are willing to compromise, what they want isn’t always in line with what their parents want.
Agnes Scott student Loren Walter has had a hard time finding common political ground with her father, a moderate Democrat who supports Biden and considers Sanders’s and Warren’s policies socialist.
“I originally supported Warren, because I really, really do want to see a woman president,” says Loren, who’s now a Biden supporter. “Once she dropped out, I put my support toward Bernie, specifically because of his progressive ideas about healthcare, climate change, and student debt.”
“Although I want to see change, they’re too extreme for me,” says her father, Willie Walter. “I know that we need to take care of those who can’t afford healthcare. I understand that. I’m not trying to sound conservative, but we have those who are able-bodied, who can work and pay for their own insurance.”
Willie says he believes the government should help as needed, but not to the point where people are overly dependent on that help. “I believe if we do too much, we continue the cycle—like with welfare, we make it comfortable for them instead of providing them with opportunities to get off welfare,” he says.
Nia Foster, a junior at Spelman College, initially backed Sanders. But Foster’s more moderate parents, who are in their early 60s and upper-middle class, supported Biden from the jump. “Somebody like Bernie is threatening to them because there’s this fear they’re going to lose what they basically earned their whole life,” she says.
While Biden’s views don’t align with hers, Nia says she “probably” will vote for him because she simply can’t take four more years of Trump.
But Sanders supporter and Morehouse College student Patrick Darrington isn’t convinced Biden can do enough to satisfy voters who demand a more progressive approach to policy.
“I don’t have any faith in him to do anything that will come close to [a progressive agenda],” he says. “I’m not going to vote for him.”
Convincing younger Black voters to support Biden is half the battle for Democrats in Georgia and beyond. The other is ensuring that when ballots are cast, they’re counted.
Concerns about voter suppression in Georgia skyrocketed in 2018 after Abrams’s razor-thin loss to Brian Kemp and again this past June, when many voters in the primary election, particularly ones in majority-Black neighborhoods, were forced to stand in line for upwards of four hours. (On average, Black voters nationally wait 50 more minutes to vote than white ones.) What’s more, an ACLU of Georgia report published in September revealed that the state wrongly removed nearly 200,000 residents from voters rolls in late 2019. The report found the state removed voters who had supposedly moved from their registration address, when in fact they had not moved at all.
Taos Wynn is working to mobilize voters through his organization Millennial Civil Rights, which seeks to unite younger and older Blacks in the fight against voter suppression.
“When you talk about experiencing extremely long lines, when you talk about having inoperable equipment, when you talk about having inadequate resources—all of these things add up to the [disenfranchising] experience,” Wynn says.
Jayme Beasley says she is privileged to have grown up in a household where political discourse was encouraged. “I have some friends who just don’t talk about politics at all to their family,” she says. “It’s not a regular conversation at all.”
Though she and her father haven’t always agreed, the most powerful lesson she’s learned through her dialogue with her parents is not really about politics at all but about acceptance. “I think your understanding of love definitely impacts how you see somebody who disagrees with you,” she says. “My parents understand that love is letting a person be their full self and not trying to control them. Love is the ability to be free and to think on your own and to be able to accumulate knowledge. That’s how you fully love somebody. You let them be their full selves.”
Her father—exhibiting his characteristic proclivity for diplomatic debate—gently calls her out on her idealism. “Politics in the household has a lot to do with how the household is functioning, how it’s surviving,” Jerome Beasley says. “There are different levels of income, different levels of education. And when you’re in an environment that may not be a very good environment, in terms of those things, then Black people aren’t going to talk politics, because they have too many other things going on—like trying to make sure they can get their kids fed. There can be some rough spots if the child wants to talk about politics and the parents are talking about rent.”
“But they go together,” his daughter says of those two things.
“Yeah, they go together,” he replies. “But that’s not the issue at the moment. They’re not talking about politics, because they don’t have time to.”
This article appears in our November 2020 issue.