Clinton or Sanders? A Generational Divide Among Black Voters

Kyle McClerkins (R) and his friend Emilio Ortega agree on one thing: They don't want Donald Trump in the White House. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Four years ago, African-Americans voted in record numbers to help seal President Obama’s re-election. But as they consider the Democrats seeking to follow the nation’s first black president, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders isn’t so clear.

A new Field Poll this week finds that while 57 percent of African-Americans likely to vote in Tuesday's primary election support Clinton, Sen. Sanders still attracts 36 percent of those voters.

And there's a huge difference in support among older and younger African-Americans. That generational divide was evident among the voters we talked to recently.

Luna Malbroux attended a Clinton rally at the old Hibernia Bank building in San Francisco last week. At age 30, she’s already a political veteran. She volunteered with the Obama campaign, but so far this time around Malbroux is undecided.

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“I’m still just really appreciating what both of the candidates are bringing, honestly," Malbroux said.

She said she wants the next president to stay the course started under Obama. And she worries what will happen to his legacy if the Republicans capture the White House.

"Bernie is taking that message that Obama brought and pushing it even further," Malbroux said. "On the other [Republican] side, they’re trying to take that legacy away. So there’s a lot at stake.”

Malbroux leans toward Clinton, but that history between the Clintons and Obama -- well, it’s a bit complicated for some African-Americans.

On a recent afternoon at Eastshore Park in Oakland, Kyle McClerkins was lying on the grass with some students and work colleagues. He works on restorative justice in the Oakland Unified School District and he’s paying attention to the election. But he says, “I’m not wild about anybody to be honest with you.”

For McClerkins, Obama is a tough act to follow. While he definitely does not support Donald Trump, McClerkins appreciates that the New York businessman says what’s on his mind.

“I think when people don’t speak their feelings because they’re worried about what the next person will say or how they’re going to feel after it’s said, it sugar coats everything," he says. "And I think a lot of the problems in the world occur because people sugar coat too much."

Across the park, 36-year-old Erica Quinn says she’s also watching the election carefully. She likes the idea of having the first woman president, but it’s Sanders who’s really got her attention.

“For me, it’s student loans," Quinn says. "So, I’m listening. I’m all ears. So it’s personal for me."

Quinn says she wanted to be responsible and get an education.

“You know, I did that, and now I’m working," Quinn says. "And it’s just really hard to take care of that debt and accomplish, you know, my goals."

Oakland residents James Sims and Zee Jones. He’s for Hillary. She’s for Bernie, and says she “absolutely” won’t vote for Hillary in November.
Oakland residents James Sims and Zee Jones. He’s for Hillary. She’s for Bernie, and says she “absolutely” won’t vote for Hillary in November. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Up the street on Lakeshore Avenue, I come across a group of friends sitting and talking outside a Starbucks. I asked one of them, James Sims, if he feels issues important to African-Americans are being discussed by the candidates.

“Well, they’re not being discussed on the Republican side at all," he says. "With the Black Lives Matter movement more so on the Democratic side, they’re being talked about. They're only talked about though in certain geographical areas."

Areas, he says, with large numbers of black and Latino voters. Sims is 59-years old. He's an attorney, and he’s supporting Clinton.

“I think that she’s just stronger, and she basically has positions that are more realistic than Bernie," Sims says.

Also in the coffee circle is Zee Jones. The 30-year old is a solid Sanders supporter.

“It seems to me that a lot of the older adults that I know, they are for the Clinton family," Jones says.

Asked why that is, Jones says, "African-Americans tend not to break tradition. You know, and I think the Clintons are a name that’s familiar to us. A lot of people are just going to vote Clinton. But absolutely not me."

But would you vote for Hillary Clinton if she’s the nominee in November? "Absolutely not," she says.

That stuns her friend James Sims.

“I don’t understand the folks who say 'Bernie or Bust,'" Sims says. "Because then they’re gonna be left with Donald Trump."

The media narrative is that black and Latino voters are with Clinton. And that’s true for older voters who remember the Clinton presidency fondly.

“By default that support translates to Hillary, not directly," says James Taylor, who directs the African-American Studies department at the University of San Francisco.

"African-Americans have this pop culture connection to Bill Clinton," he says, referring in particular to 1992, when Bill Clinton first ran for president. Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall show wearing sunglasses and played the saxophone. Taylor says it made a powerful, lasting impression with black voters.

"The sort of hypnotic impact that the Clintons have had with African-Americans was through this symbolic gesture of identifying with blues and jazz culture," he says.

But Taylor says many younger African-Americans, with help from the Black Lives Matter movement, are more in tune with the downsides of Clinton’s presidency.

“They know that Bill Clinton that is a principle player, probably Ronald Reagan’s best student, of the War on Drugs, is Bill Clinton, not a Republican," Taylor says.

A recent poll conducted for the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project (AAVREP) shows that if, as expected, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, 80 percent of black voters in California will support her. But, says James Taylor, she’ll need more than that to defeat Donald Trump in November.

“She needs to be hearing 92, 93, 94 percent right now," Taylor says. "And the fact that they’re saying 80 percent of blacks in California are interested in voting for her -- that's not good for her."

Taylor says Clinton will need to do better than that in November. At the same time, Taylor says he's certain African-American voters will indeed rally around the Democratic nominee, no matter who it is.

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