Far from the hustle of modern Atlanta and its rapidly growing suburbs is an older Georgia, a rural land of cotton fields and vacant storefronts, of low-wage jobs and shuttered swimming pools, of underfunded Black colleges and American promises ever deferred.
In 2020, strong turnout among Black voters in these isolated regions of the state was key to the coalition that turned Georgia blue and ousted Donald Trump from office. Though Atlanta and its suburbs have drawn much of the national attention, Black Democrats in rural Georgia were just as critical: Voting in large numbers in 2020, they reduced the margin of victory in Republican strongholds.
Three years later, ahead of a presidential election that could determine whether the United States slides toward autocracy, there are signs this coalition is on the brink of collapse. Many Black voters say President Biden and the Democratic Party have so far failed to deliver the changes they need to improve their lives, from higher-paid jobs to student debt relief and voting protections. They want Mr. Trump out of the White House for good. But indifference and even disdain are growing toward a Democratic Party that relies assiduously on Black Americans’ support yet rarely seems in a hurry to deliver results for them in return.
“The Black Hills,” a print by Jason Hunt, hangs at Major’s Barber & Beauty in Fort Valley, Ga.Credit…José Ibarra Rizo for The New York Times
“What does he know about my life?” Kyla Johnson, 19, told me of Mr. Biden outside the Dollar General grocery store in Fort Valley, a tiny town in central Georgia home to Fort Valley State University. Ms. Johnson said she had no plans to vote next year.
To better understand this discontent, I set out to talk to Black voters across rural Georgia. What I found were many people who are largely living in poverty and say they feel forgotten by Mr. Biden and national Democrats, though almost all did vote for Mr. Biden in 2020. They say they won’t vote for Republicans, whom they see as embodying the spirit of the Old South. But so far, many voters told me, they have seen and heard nothing to suggest that the Democratic Party understands their problems, is committed to improving their lives or even cares about them at all.
In dozens of interviews across rural Georgia, younger Black Americans in the region said they are struggling to put food on the table amid soaring prices. They are grappling with suddenly surging housing costs in areas that had long been affordable. Many are carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, debts they have no idea how they can repay working the jobs available in the region, which are extremely limited and low paying. The bounty from a booming Wall Street is nowhere to be found.
In Peach County, home to Fort Valley, nearly one in three Black Americans is living below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. census data, compared to 16 percent of white residents in the county and 12.5 percent of Americans nationally. In Lowndes County, which includes Valdosta, about one in three Black Americans is living below the poverty line, compared to just 12.5 percent of white residents.
Ms. Johnson’s friend Zayln Young, 18, said she would consider voting, but had so far heard nothing from Mr. Biden about the issues she cared about the most. “For instance, I can’t get food stamps because I’m on my meal plan. Why?” Ms. Young asked, adding that her school meal plan at Fort Valley State University is hard for her to afford and doesn’t provide enough food. (Under federal rules, students who receive the majority of their meals from a school meal plan are ineligible for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)
Inside the grocery store moments later, Kem Harris, a social worker, told me she had come to buy items to make gift baskets for Fort Valley State University students who were in need. “Some of them don’t have family nearby and they can’t afford basics, like food,” said Ms. Harris, 56. “Today is toiletries, like toothpaste.”
In national polls, Black voters appear to be moving away from Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party while expressing growing support for Mr. Trump. In one October poll, just 71 percent of Black voters in battleground states said they would vote for Mr. Biden, compared to the 87 percent that voted for him nationwide in 2020. Nearly a third of Black men said they support Mr. Trump, while 17 percent of Black women do. In another poll, one in five Black voters said they wanted someone other than Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden.
What’s going on? Trumpism has proved to be a powerful force in American politics, so it should come as little surprise that some Black Americans — especially Black men — might also be drawn to its authoritarianism, faux populism and toxic masculinity, as so many White Americans have been, particularly as the economy has grown increasingly unequal.
Given Mr. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacy, however, that appeal is severely limited. What’s more likely is not a widespread shift of Black voters toward Mr. Trump but a vote of no confidence in Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party. Black Americans know they make up the backbone of the party. They believe — correctly — that it has long taken them for granted. And now they seem to be reaching a breaking point.
“Overall, I hear this sense of apathy,” said Melinee Calhoun, the state organizing manager for Black Voters Matter, a nonpartisan voting rights group with a large presence in rural Georgia. “It’s: We did what we were asked to do, and nothing has changed.” In many communities, organizers like Dr. Calhoun are the only ones building a relationship with Black voters.
Biden campaign officials say the president and Democrats have enacted policies, like the infrastructure bill and $2.2 billion in relief aimed at helping Black farmers, that directly benefit these communities. Part of the challenge, they say, is explaining that they could do more were it not for Republican opposition in Congress.
“We want to point out the fact that the Republicans have stood in the way,” Quentin Fulks, Mr. Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager, told me in a phone interview. But, he said, “we have to do a better job of taking credit for the work we’ve been doing.”
In rural Georgia, this disconnect is vast. Organizers, voters and others here say there has been little investment from national Democrats in the region. Mr. Fulks said that it’s early, and that the campaign was still hiring and planned to spend significant resources in the state. Nevertheless, as Mr. Biden campaigns for a second term, likely against a would-be autocrat, he is speaking about democracy in sweeping terms and lauding the strength of an economy whose fruits are far removed from the daily realities of Black Americans in rural Georgia.
Whipping up fears over Mr. Trump and taking a victory lap on standard Democratic policies may not be enough to win back these voters. Instead, Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party will have to get serious about taking bolder measures to help a group of people who, descended from Americans once enslaved in the very same region, remain largely without access to financial capital, under constant threat of political disenfranchisement and, too often, in poverty.
When the gentlemen at Major’s Barber & Beauty Shop in downtown Fort Valley learned a journalist from The New York Times was in town, one of them stepped out onto the mostly empty street and beckoned me in. Inside, one of the customers, a regular, welcomed me to what he described as “our country club.”
“If it’s Trump, I’ll vote twice,” Major McKenzie, 72, joked. But across the room one barber, Shaun William, 38, carefully affixed a Louis Vuitton-themed cape around a client’s neck and shook his head. Mr. William was worried. Many of his clients, he said, couldn’t stand Mr. Trump. But in recent years under Mr. Biden, they had only seen their lives become harder with rising inflation.
“Bad as things were, people say they felt money was circulating with Trump in office, those stimulus checks,” he said. “Now there is no money circulating. Prices are up. The cost of food is up.”
Throughout the region, opportunities for jobs are extremely limited. Many voters told me they are forced to make a choice: working menial jobs for local businesses owned by a handful of White Republican families, fast food or Wal-Mart. Given the grinding poverty around them, some voters here also said the recent headlines about the United States sending billions to Israel to bomb Gaza are hard to swallow.
“I think he should stay out of other people’s business and focus more on problems here at home,” said Kameron White, a 33-year-old forklift operator. “We need help here. We need better education. More jobs. There’s drugs, there’s gang violence. There’s very few grocery stores. I want to see more change at home.”
The state of Georgia stands to receive more than $9 billion under the infrastructure plan championed by Mr. Biden, money for roads, bridges, airports, public transit and cleaner water.But Black voters in Georgia, which has two Democratic senators but a Republican governor and legislature, say they have yet to see that money flow into their own communities. In Valdosta, not far from the Florida border, several residents told me they were angry the city was spending $1.8 million to build pickleball courts even as it keeps threadbare hours for a public swimming pool in a largely Black neighborhood throughout the sweltering South Georgia summer. Though Black residents make up a modest majority in Valdosta, the city’s mayor is a white right-wing talk-show host.
Voter enthusiasm is critical in Georgia, where a spirited campaign of suppression and disenfranchisement driven by Republicans and conservative activists both local and national makes exercising the right to vote harder than in many places. In 2005, the state became among the first in the country to enact a measure requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote. In recent years, right-wing activists and Republican Party officials in the state have led an effort to remove voters from the rolls.
In a quiet neighborhood of Valdosta near Barack Obama Boulevard, Erica Jordan, 29, greeted me on the porch of her aging white bungalow.
She is behind on the rent, as she recently lost her job at Pizza Hut. Because of this, she lost her car, severely limiting her ability to work and be a parent in Valdosta, which has no regular citywide public transit system. Over the past year, the monthly rent on her small house went up by $100, to $750. In late August, floodwaters from Hurricane Idalia entered her home, damaging some of her belongings.
Ms. Jordan is now working a telecommunications job from home, but she says she earns too much for food stamps and not enough to make ends meet or afford food at the one grocery store within walking distance. At the end of every month, Ms. Jordan says, she asks to babysit or do hair just to eke by.
“I’m not complaining, but I pay the bills on my own. I’m a single mother. I need help,” she said.
She plans to vote next year, but wonders aloud if it will ever bring the change she needs. “All my life, I been played,” she says. “Every year it gets harder. It makes me wonder why I vote.”
It was these voters, some of the poorest in the country, who played a key role in denying Mr. Trump a second term and preserving American democracy. It’s in America’s best interest to make sure they have a reason — and a right — to keep showing up to vote.
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