The Democrats Are Debating on an HBCU Campus. Will They Take Advantage of the Opportunity?

(L-R) Dominique James, Michael Young, Jr., Lenny Pradia and Akeem Fountenot on the campus of Texas Southern University on Wednesday, September 11.
(L-R) Dominique James, Michael Young, Jr., Lenny Pradia and Akeem Fountenot on the campus of Texas Southern University on Wednesday, September 11.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr/The Root
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HOUSTON—Montgomery Morris expressed optimism that one of the 10 candidates who will appear on his campus at Texas Southern University tonight can beat Donald Trump, but that they all will need to focus squarely on black issues that will turn out support in the primaries next year.


“Making it easier for people of my color to get jobs easier because we go through a lot,” Morris, 19, said as he was leaving campus. “When people get locked up, make a better situation for them because it is hard for them when they get out.”

Texas Southern University sits in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, not too far from the University of Houston. Locals will tell you that the schools give the semblance of prosperity, but you’re pretty much in the hood. Some of the residents I spoke with off-campus were pleased that such a major event would be taking place in a low-income community and hoped issues of gentrification, economic inequality and social justice would be addressed tonight. Also, that 10 presidential candidates, one of whom could possibly become president, will debate on a historically black college campus means a lot to the students matriculating here.

“I hope that it will motivate people to reach out and vote and to see that people are on our side,” Jazmine Scott, an administrative justice major, said. “I hope that it will help people like me support their choice on who to vote for. So I am looking for it to be informative for me and other people.”

The first two democratic debates broadcast over two nights, but tonight’s will be the first that takes place on one night with a whittled down line up. Given that black people vote for Democrats with more than 90 percent support, they don’t have to do much to win over this demographic, but what each candidate must prove is that they are the person who can defeat Donald Trump and create enough enthusiasm for a better-than-average turn out next November.

And that starts with proving to young people that the candidates actually care about their issues.


What also helps is that, with fewer candidates, comes a more concentrated core of White House hopefuls squaring off with each other on black issues. In tonight’s line up we’ll have Vice President Joe Biden; Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; former Housing Secretary Julián Castro; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.


Will any of the candidates, for example, take on Joe Biden’s busing stances and support of the 1994 Crime Bill? Will Julián Castro try to poke holes in Kamala Harris’ criminal justice platform because of her heavily criticized prosecutorial record? Will Harris tear Biden a new asshole again like she did in Miami? Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been friendly, but will they mix it up over their economic and education plans tonight? Will Cory Booker up his polling numbers with a respectable showing? He definitely needs a boost.

What about Klobuchar, Buttigieg, O’Rourke and Yang? Will they make any noise?

It was a balmy Tuesday afternoon as students chilled on campus with hip-hop music blasting throughout campus from the football field where players were running drills. I walked up to a group of young men and asked them what they hoped would come out of the democratic candidates’ appearances tonight and they all focused on student loans.


“After you finish getting your degree, you still gotta pay that money back,” Michael Young, Jr., said. “You job searching after you get your degree and it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to find a job that’s going to pay back those students loans for the rate they are asking for. I feel that they can either take away student loans after you finish your degree or they can (lower) the rates for them.”


Dominique James agreed.

“Like he said, a lot of students are job searching and a lot of people may not step into internships in what they are getting their degree in. So, for a while, you might struggle to pay back your student loans and struggle to make a living. It’s a lot of things you have to take care of after you graduate. You have to take care of yourself, other expenses. So student loans is a huge issue.”


The candidates will have a lot to consider when addressing people tonight. Student loans and college debt will be a leading topic, if the goal is to pique the interest of the youth vote. But they can’t skimp on criminal justice and other issues concerning race, either. This debate should be a marker of how well the candidates can speak to young black people.

We’ll see.

Shavon Bolden, a health major who said said this will be her first election voting, reflected on how meaningful it is that the DNC chose Texas Southern University to host the debates when they could have chosen the University of Houston literally a block over.


“They are a predominately white institution and they’re in the third ward just like us and they are a great school,” Bolden, 19, said. “For them to choose us over them is like yay for us because we deserve representation too and we are very educated. I would like for students at TSU to be more aware of the candidates and I would like for people around the world to see what TSU has going on.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.


Why is the debate always about how to make student loans more manageable? Loan balances are a symptom of the obscene annual inflation in the cost of college, and academia is one institution in this country almost entirely controlled by progressives. My school now costs 3x what it did when I graduated 20+ years ago. So why no pressure from Democrats on colleges and universities to control their expenses instead of just socializing the costs across all taxpayers?