Bernie Sanders’ HBCU Tour, Black Millennial Support Put to the Test on Super Tuesday

Election 2016
Posted By Monica Harvin on March 1, 2016 at 9:49 am
Bernie Sanders’ HBCU Tour, Black Millennial Support Put to the Test on Super Tuesday
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at Morehouse College in Atlanta, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders set off on his #FeelTheBern HBCU tour, visiting historically black colleges and universities around the country. The tour began at South Carolina State University on January 14 and has continued throughout the primary season. Now, following a big loss in South Carolina, on Super Tuesday, Sanders’ focus on mobilizing young black voters on college campuses was put to the test.

“While Hillary Clinton has won establishment support from older blacks leaders… Sanders is finding support on college campuses and among young people inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. The division is not altogether new,” reports the Los Angeles Times, citing Tobe Johnson, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, who makes the comparison to “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference… at odds with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Sanders’ Feel the Bern HBCU Tour, Looking beyond Election 2016

On the campaign trail in Georgia, Sanders visited the Atlanta University Center Consortium in February, which includes four of the country’s most influential, private HBCUs, Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Morehouse School of Medicine. There, Spelman student and president of the Young Democrats, Kaya Ellis, recalls Sanders’ visit as similar to a hip hop concert with screams and cheers, coupled with tears, at times, throughout the Senator’s speech, where he discussed plans for tuition-free college, as well as other issues like police brutality and the Flint Water crisis facing African American communities.

Ellis tells GoodCall, “Bernie Sanders may not know, but he didn’t just attend an HBCU. He sat and had dinner with a Historically Black Family. The HBCU network and the HBCU outreach stretches far beyond that gym on Morehouse’s campus,” where the event took place. “The fact that he had the bold and upright attitude to name his tour the HBCU tour already had an impact [before he came to the campus].” What’s more, the visit reached beyond the AUC to students at other Georgia colleges and universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Georgia Southern University, Kennesaw State University, Georgia Perimeter College, and Emory University, who were also in attendance, according to Ellis.

Sanders is not alone in visiting HBCU schools on the campaign trail, though, Hillary Clinton recently visited Texas Southern University for the second time since announcing her candidacy in 2015. And like Sanders, Clinton has employed celebrity supporters, like Angela Bassett, to visit HBCUs in her stead. Sanders’ lineup of black celebrity endorsements continues to grow, now counting Spike Lee, acclaimed black filmmaker and a graduate of Morehouse College, among its ranks, alongside hip hop, pop culture icons and renowned black academics like Dr. Cornell West.

Some, however, question whether the support for HBCUs will continue if either candidate succeeds in their bid for the White House. Charges lodged against both Clinton and Sanders argue that the candidates are yet to speak about states’ actions to defund some HBCUs. Recent critics of Sanders argue that his tuition-free proposal ignores the HBCU students at private institutions while his supporters point to the fact that the majority of HBCU students will benefit from tuition-free education and to the Senator’s support for a $30 billion fund for private HBCUs and other minority serving institutions.

For the HBCUs that serve 11 percent of black college students, as well as growing shares of other minority and white students, ensuring the future of programs put in place and strengthened under the Obama administration will require holding either of the Democratic candidates accountable for making good on their promises to support the nation’s historically black colleges and universities if they make it to the White House.

Sanders’ Popularity With Black Millennials Holds Lessons

A recent Washington Post poll finds that although Sanders remains popular among young black voters, he’s not popular enough, with Clinton being rated slightly more favorable among black voters age 18-29. Reuters/Ipsos polling reveals similar findings, with 46 percent of young blacks 18-29 years old supporting Clinton versus 33 percent for Sanders. In spite of Clinton’s lead, Sanders’ popularity while running against the Democratic favorite reveals that “Sanders’ outspoken views on reducing income inequality, cracking down on Wall Street, and cutting the cost of college,” are resonating with a, nevertheless, substantial share of young African Americans, according to Reuters.

Sanders’ focus on young minority voters has garnered him lots of support, though up until now, not enough to win a state with a large African-American population. So what happens particularly in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas, among other states holding Super Tuesday primaries will reveal whether Sanders still has a chance at the Democratic nomination.

Also, a recent Fortune article points to the 2008 precedent “split between establishment black Democrats and the black rank-and-file… [where] Clinton garnered early support from a number of black members of Congress, who later shifted their support to Barack Obama after it became clear that their constituents supported him.” A Sanders win in the South on Super Tuesday could result in similar shifts as lawmakers are forced to respond to the wills of their mobilized constituents.

Hillary Clinton has already been forced to rethink how she appeals to these young voters to mobilize them if Sanders exits the race. And regardless of a Sanders’ win or loss, his emphasis on HBCUs and success at mobilizing minority millennial voters stand as lessons and challenges for the Democratic and Republican candidates that remain.

For more political coverage, see our special Election 2016 section.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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