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Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Biden campaign working to turn its HBCU support into electoral support

The Biden administration has invested major time and money into historically Black colleges and universities in an effort to follow through on promises and maintain its standing among two groups that were critical to President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory: young voters and Black voters.

Now, as the president runs for re-election, the administration will find out just how much goodwill those investments have built — and how much that matters when stacked up against other policy issues important to HBCU students and alums.

In addition to providing more than $7 billion in funding to the schools, the administration has directed its agencies to maximize resources and opportunities for HBCUs and convened multiple meetings of HBCU students and leadership. 

“Their commitment to us, as well to make us feel heard and understood, is critical and crucial,” said Lauren Dent, a student at Spelman College. “That’s something that honestly another administration hasn’t really shown HBCUs in the past.”

Vice President Kamala Harris has been at the forefront of the administration’s efforts to maintain a consistent focus on HBCUs. Harris, an HBCU grad herself (Howard University), included several HBCUs on her “Fight for Our Freedoms” college tour last fall, which the White House framed as focusing on “key issues that disproportionately impact young people across the country — from reproductive freedom and gun safety to climate action, voting rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and book bans.”

She attended the Cricket Celebration Bowl, the HBCU football championship game, and delivered the 2022 undergraduate commencement speech at Tennessee State University.

Last week, Harris hosted a White House gathering of roughly 100 HBCU students and alumni to commemorate Black History Month. She later held an after-party at her residence in the Naval Observatory.

“Seeing that commitment to Black and brown students across the United States, not just at HBCUs, but also in public schools and in rural communities, I definitely think that’s one of the biggest highlights that I felt with the Biden-Harris administration,” said RJ Jackson, a student who attended one of Harris’ events at Morehouse College last year.

Conversations with several HBCU students in battleground Georgia echoed that sentiment from Jackson, many praising Harris for her dedication to the schools. But they also revealed that the administration’s efforts have been undercut by several issues, including its support for Israel in its war on Hamas in Gaza, an issue that remains among the most salient on their campuses.

“I would like for the war to end,” said Aylon Gipson, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta who supports calls for a cease-fire. “I think Israel has been too cutthroat on how they approach this situation.”

Ivoryana Neal, a student at Spelman College, noted the role social media has played in framing the war.

“Right now, what we’re seeing that’s being portrayed to us through social media is how women are being killed and children are being killed,” Neal said. “So the question becomes, what can the United States do, other than financially, to relieve some of this burden?”

Another Morehouse student, Calvin Bell, said: “There are many students I’ve heard that said they don’t don’t even want to vote. Students are not in favor of this genocide or not in favor of the trauma that the people are going through.”

Yet Bell and the five other HBCU students interviewed by NBC News still made clear that they intended to vote for Biden and Harris this November. But for most, the vote is out of obligation rather than enthusiasm. And some said others they know are thinking about staying home.

“I will be voting for Biden, but I feel like I’m voting out of the sense of voting for the lesser of two evils,” Bell said. 

“I want to move forward in the right direction and if that means that I unfortunately have to vote for a candidate who doesn’t necessarily encompass everything that I believe in, but at least touches on certain points that I think the other candidate does not discuss … then I will do so,” Bell continued.

“People don’t feel as though they’re doing enough to help and actually prevent or call for a cease-fire,” Dent said. “That on our campus has really influenced a lot of girls to say, ‘You know what, I can’t vote for people who can’t protect the lives of innocent civilians.'”

“But that doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to vote for the other party,” Dent added, highlighting the risk of Biden losing potential voters to the couch, not necessarily to Republicans.

The students also highlighted another issue for Biden: His administration’s achievements haven’t been as visible as its failures.

Both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Chips and Science Act included provisions designed to specifically bolster opportunities and funding at HBCUs, but neither has led to a tangible day-to-day difference for many students on those campuses. 

Conversely, Biden’s failed student loan forgiveness plan — which was stymied by Republican opposition in Congress before his executive action on the subject was shot down by the Supreme Court — remains a common point of frustration. One student told NBC News that loan forgiveness is still “a big concern for students who attend HBCUs,” some of whom would’ve met the criteria for Biden’s debt relief plan.

“There was a notification sent out that they would be suspending student debt if you fell in a certain category,” Neal said. “Coming from a single-parent home, under the income wage they asked for, I fell in the category where I was supposed to get my student debt erased.”

Additionally, despite Biden signing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first federal gun violence prevention legislation in nearly 30 years, students seem unconvinced that its provisions will reduce the number of mass shootings nationwide.

Biden’s re-election campaign will also have to contend with efforts by Republicans to improve their standing among HBCU students, particularly Black men.

At recent events, former President Donald Trump has touted what he’s characterized as “record funding” for HBCUs as well as his sit-down meetings with HBCU leaders.

While most students interviewed by NBC News said they’re unlikely to support Trump given his past rhetoric on race, some say they have classmates more willing to lend the former president an ear.

“I had a conversation with some brothers yesterday, and there was one person who said he kind of likes Trump, that he liked what he did for the economy,” Bell said.

The Democratic National Committee is trying to limit Trump’s impact, launching a nationwide digital advertising campaign last month to reach Black and young voters on 15 college campuses, nearly half of them HBCUs.

“Young, Black voters know there’s only one choice on the ballot this November with a proven record of delivering for them — that’s President Biden and Vice President Harris,” DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said in a statement.

Nnamdi Egwuonwu ↗

Nnamdi Egwuonwu is a 2024 NBC News campaign embed.

Michael Maren
Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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