Hundreds of Atlanta University Center students cheered with excitement when Vice President Kamala Harris stepped on stage inside the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College on Tuesday.
Seeing the Howard University graduate and first Black woman to serve as the nation’s second-in-command, live and in-person, was an inspiration to fellow HBCU attendees like Spelman sophomore Sydney White.
“I think everything that she touched on, and even the questions asked [by students], were things that needed to be spoken on,” the 19-year-old White said after Harris’ remarks.
But the jubilant reaction Harris received stood in contrast to the one Mayor Andre Dickens got when he came on stage ahead of Harris on Tuesday. A few boos echoed through the auditorium along with some cheers after the event host introduced the mayor.
It’s been about seven months since Morehouse students called Dickens a “sellout” over his support for the public safety training center, aka “Cop City.” On Tuesday, the venue DJ started playing the New Boyz classic “You’re A Jerk” after Dickens’ introduction. The mayor waited for the song to end before stepping to the podium and discussing the importance of voting.
“One of the things about being an American requires us to participate in our government, and one way to do that is to vote in all elections,” he said.
Morehouse junior Daxton Pettus found Dickens’ remarks to be hypocritical. He suggested the mayor has supported voter suppression because of the city’s handling of Cop City. The city clerk’s office initially refused to process petition signatures supporting a voter referendum on the center until after a federal court ruling.
The clerk’s office has also said it will use a controversial signature verification process to determine whether each petition signature corresponds with a “qualified Atlanta voter.”
“It’s a contradiction to suppress votes and then, at the same time, say you want people to vote, when people all across Georgia, all across Atlanta, got together to put his [training center] policy to a vote,” Pettus said.
Young people’s disappointment with local Democratic leadership has been palpable. Some say it has polluted their view of President Joe Biden and the effectiveness of other Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Pettus pointed out Harris only talked about national issues and not local issues, with which he’s more concerned.
“To me, really, it sounded like it was about voting,” he said, regarding Harris’ visit to Morehouse. “It didn’t really sound like it was about actual concerns of residents in Atlanta, the city, or really in Georgia.”
Among the local issues most concerning to students is the growing economic divide between the Black haves and have-nots. AUC schools rank among the most elite HBCUs in the country, but students like Morehouse’s Christopher Lambry also feel a connection to the Black community that surrounds the combined campus and a sense that the city’s Black Democratic political class isn’t working for the benefit of most Black Atlanta residents.
Homelessness in Atlanta was up 33% year-over-year in January, and nearly 83% of those surveyed that month were Black, according to the latest annual Point-In-Time homelessness census.
Lambry, 17, said he spends his Saturday mornings handing out meals to homeless people at St. Francis Church, just a block away from a City Hall run by Black Democrats.
“It’s sad that we have things where we’re feeding 300 homeless individuals every Saturday right across the street from City Hall, right across the street from the state Capitol,” Lambry said. “I think these are some of the issues and some of the things that are wrong with the systematic structure we have.”
Mixed feelings on Democratic leadership
Black people’s support for Biden has sunk dramatically since 2020, especially Black youth. Only about 58% of Black Americans 18 to 49 somewhat or strongly approve of Biden, according to an American Enterprise Institute survey released in early September.
Economic concerns such as employment, housing, and overall inflation — in addition to Biden’s age and cringey racial gaffes — have dampened Black youth support for the president. Congressional Democrats also haven’t passed landmark legislation on voting rights and police reform, and a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump blocked implementation of Biden’s student loan forgiveness program last year.
Still, in Georgia, voter engagement activists say Black voter registration levels this year have met or exceeded the level they reached in 2019. The president has had a notable list of accomplishments, including investing more than $7 billion in HBCUs, dramatically reducing the Black child poverty rate via Affordable Care Act tax credits, increasing Black enrollment in the “Obamacare” marketplace by 49%, and reaching near record-low Black unemployment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fenika Miller, deputy national field director for the Black Voters Matter Fund, said Biden and Democrats in Congress have achieved a lot for Black America over the past three years, but little to no progress on issues like housing and economic mobility has made many Black college students and younger graduates more cynical about politics.
“Students don’t have the same institutional trust that I may have or generations past had growing up,” she said. “They know that they have power. They do get registered to vote. They have opinions, but they want to see things materialized.”
Students focus on local issues
Spelman junior Jocelyn McCullough, president of her school’s Planned Parenthood chapter, appreciated Harris’ mention of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and maternal health care. But other local issues were on her mind, too.
After the vice president’s visit, McCullough and other AUC students rallied in support of alleged police brutality victims during a protest outside a nearby BP gas station. Among the named victims was Johnny Hollman, the 62-year-old Black church deacon who was tased and died during a “physical struggle” with Atlanta police following a traffic stop on Aug. 10, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The protesters called for authorities to release the bodycam video of Hollman’s fatal encounter with APD officers to the public. Hollman’s family was permitted to view the video earlier this month.
McCullough said she wore a “Justice for Chairman Deacon Johnny” T-shirt to the Harris event to raise awareness about the case. It’s a mission she felt she accomplished.
“I was around a lot of movers and shakers backstage,” she said. “I do feel that my shirt was effective.”
Morehouse junior Noah Collier wondered why Harris didn’t talk about Atlanta’s income inequality being the highest in the nation last year, or how the city’s housing affordability crisis has impacted many AUC students.
He said lack of progress or action on issues like this at the federal level is why many young people like him aren’t enthusiastic about voting.
“The differences between a Democrat and Republican in America in 2023 [are] very slim,” Collier said. “Both of their interests lie in themselves and their own personal relationships with the elite who run this country.”
Collier and Pettus said they’re not sure who they’ll vote for in next year’s presidential election. But local politics, including the training center, which Pettus opposes, weigh heavy on his decision-making, he said. A majority of the city’s Democratic City Council members voted to fund the training center, which is also supported by Dickens.
“What’s going on with Democrats in Atlanta is people are losing faith in our leadership when it comes down to City Council members and the mayor,” Pettus said.