ATLANTA — Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj boomed through loudspeakers in the gym at Clark Atlanta University gym, where throngs of students dancing in the bleachers periodically broke into chants of “Warren! Warren!”
“Can we just hear it for America’s HBCUs?,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren crowed after she bounded onstage to sustained thunderous applause, referring to the roughly 100 historically black colleges and universities around the U.S.
Above her, a digital banner read, “VALUE THE WORK OF BLACK WOMEN.”
“I wanted to stick around after last night’s debate because this city has been at the heart of America’s fight for justice. Atlanta is a city that honors fighters,” Warren said, before adding, “the fighters I want to talk about tonight are black women.”
Warren’s rally came the day after the Democratic debate in Atlanta and on the heels of a speech that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered earlier on Thursday at neighboring Morehouse College, a historically black men’s school.
Even President Trump tried to appeal to students at HBCUs. In October, he made an appearance at South Carolina’s Benedict College, though only seven students reportedly attended the speech.
Warren’s rally at Clark Atlanta, featuring a speech about black female laborers who organized during the industrial revolution and a rousing introduction by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, was a jubilant —if not transparent — grab at attracting black female voters.
The demographic has become a critical voting bloc for Democrats, particularly in the wake of the last presidential election, when over 90 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton. Among white women, only 45 percent did.
During the 2018 midterm elections, too, 55% of black women in the U.S. voted, a full 6% above the national average; that bloc is widely credited with helping deliver the most diverse Congress in American history.
But in the last several years, young black college students haven’t turned out to vote in nearly the same numbers. In 2016, in fact, turnout among black students attending HBCUs dropped by a whopping 10 points from the 2012 election, to 40 percent.
And data shows that black women don’t just turn out for the sake of embracing the Democratic Party. They show up “to advance their own agenda that many others can rally behind,” writes Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. That is: They want a candidate who speaks to issues that matter to them, and not just those who show up every four years.
“Candidates recognize the power of the black vote”
“Candidates recognize the power of the black vote,” said 19-year-old Alake Jacobs, a sophomore at Clark Atlanta, who says he and his friends are energized for the election.
“They don’t give us enough credit,” he says of politicians. “A lot of us are really pushing to vote, looking up our candidates, listening to what they’re saying.”
Warren’s campaign in particular has zeroed in on black students as an untapped resource, and has doubled down on trying to reach them.
For months, she has held rallies at historically black colleges across the South, and rolled out a series of plans designed to engage young black voters.
These include addressing sky-high maternal mortality rates among black women and investing $50 billion in historically black colleges, but also a series of other proposals that disproportionately affect black Americans: legalizing marijuana, cancelling student loan debt for the vast majority of borrowers, and ending the cash bail system.
Jacobs said Warren’s Thursday speech was powerful because it didn’t seem like she was “pandering” –– not a simple task for a white candidate who’s going out of her way to court black voters, and a pervasive concern in the black community because of how much it’s happened in the past.
“I have friends who think Kamala Harris is pandering for the black vote, talking about hot sauce in her purse,” Jacobs said. That can sort of feel like pandering.” (Harris, who attended Howard University, has pledged to invest $70 billion in black colleges and minority-owned businesses.)
The guiding principle of Warren’s campaign has been that racial justice is economic justice, and her Thursday speech at Clark Atlantic emphasized that message.
In her speech, she led with an anecdote about the thousands of black women living in Atlanta at the end of the 19th century who performed domestic labor for white families. Tired of wages that were barely enough to live on, those women unionized.
“Black women led, but soon, the handful of white washerwomen who’d stood on the sidelines realized that the only way to better wages was to follow the lead of the black women,” Warren said. “Working women standing together.”
Warren has struggled to enjoy the amount of support from black leaders that former Vice President Joe Biden has seen. In South Carolina, for example, 52 percent of black voters say the former veep is their first or second choice for president; Warren’s at half that, at 26 percent.
But she’s still making steady gains: That 26 percent figure is still double what her numbers were in July. (And those numbers are still better than those of South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is polling at zero percent among black voters in South Carolina.)
Mariah White, a 21-year-old Clark Atlanta junior who volunteered at the event, said she’s “100 percent in for Elizabeth.”
Still, she’s rather hear Warren talk about her plans over reciting history.
“It was too repetitive to hear her talk about our history — it’s our history. I wish I would have heard her talk more in depth about what she’s going to do,” White said. “Because yeah, we fought,” White said, referring to black women throughout history. “We know we fought.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), stands with U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) as she addresses a group of protesters during a campaign event at Clark Atlanta University on November 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)