(Note: Polling data was released three days after this post was published showing that black millennials voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.)
There are various explanations as to why Hillary Clinton has maintained solid support among black voters this primary season. The stated reasons range from black pragmatism and the Clintons’ popularity with black people, to Sanders being out of touch with black voters, and the more provocative party capture thesis, which I have put forth. (Along with many others) With all the data showing Sanders under-performing with non-whites, perhaps the most interesting set of data concerns millennials. Here we observe this:
The ratings from millennials do not correspond with the ratings from their elders:
Sanders has a higher favorability rating among black millennials than Clinton. Additionally, Sanders has outperformed Clinton among black millenials. Unfortunately, younger voters don’t vote at the same rate as everyone else, and by a wide margin. Take the New York primary for example, where voters under 30 only made up 18% of the electorate as opposed to the 45-64 demographic which made up 40%. Black youth turnout in particular is low, another fact ignored by Sanders critics. (*See expanded counterargument below.)
The age breakdown of black political opinion tells a slightly different narrative than the monolithic black vote story the media generally pushes. Why Sanders does better with young black voters such as me, is up for debate as there are many reasons. One organization, Black Lives Matter, has arguably been the most impactful protest movement on politics since the Civil Rights Movement. Demonstrations have changed to campaign interruptions, forcing candidates such as Bernie Sanders into having a more aggressive agenda combating structural racism. In what I would say is a strategic move, the organization has not formally endorsed a candidate, as members have exerted pressure on Secretary Clinton to come to terms with past policy positions on criminal justice and race.
This maybe one reason why young black voters don’t have as high of an opinion of Hillary Clinton as their parents. The protest sentiment in the millennial generation has been strong, drastically changing views on racial inequality. This is true especially for millennials born after 1990: the demographic has become well acquainted with decentralized protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the former of which has the same class rhetoric as Sanders. (Think of the infamous “1%”)
Sanders has much more of a populist and grassroots campaign than Hillary Clinton’s establishment “connections” campaign. This raw progressive feel to the Sanders campaign makes it to a small degree like Obama’s in 2008. What makes Sanders seem more accessible to young voters is how closely he resembles these grassroots progressive movements, as he allowed a black woman to interrupt him and take the mic during a rally. A hard-head like Trump would have certainly engaged in a physical and verbal power struggle with any protester that did that. Black millennials Feel the Bern because like their white peers, they are seduced by Sanders’ populist appeal. Black Lives Matter has forced both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to answer to their support of the Violent Crime and Control Act of the 90’s, or the “crime bill.” But as I have noted, their rhetoric and reasons at the time differed greatly.
This may play some role in why the younger black “protest generation” supports Sanders more and Hillary Clinton less than the older black cohorts. Terms like “super-predator” have done some damage to Hillary Clinton’s reputation with black folks. Activists have seized on any opportunity to challenge both candidates in proving that black voters and lives matter. It is not just activists who have challenged politicians either. Black intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have as well, as he wrote a damning critique of Sanders’ racial views despite his support for him. No matter how tough the scrutiny though, it is of my opinion that the black community should hold all politicians accountable to their promise of ensuring black progress and prosperity. No matter how “well they get things done”, or how progressive they proclaim to be, the decisive yet precious black vote should never be taken for granted.
(*Counterargument: One could argue he should have been able to excite his base more, but it is hard to overcome the astonishing 58% black millennial turnout for the first black president in 2008, the highest black youth turnout in history. Black political apathy among millennials is rooted in the reality of vast racial inequality at the end of the second term of the first black president. Cynicism towards our two-party system is summed up by this question: If institutional racism exists during the era of the first black president, what could a white progressive do to dismantle it?)
(Update: A new Reuters poll was recently released, surveying the racial attitudes of supporters of the candidates in 2016. Sanders’ supporters were the least racist in terms of anti-black racism, with Clinton supporters at times being more racist than Republicans such as Kasich in categories like criminal stereotypes. As many have claimed, Sanders might have been awkward with black voters, but his supporters certainly were the most consistent in rejecting racism despite their struggling explanations for the black vote. Maybe millennials are dramatically less racist after all, or at least liberal millennials.)