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Gen Z Voters On The Issues That Matter Most To Them Ahead Of The Election

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I have been getting to know some of the youngest people who will be voting in this year's election - Gen Z. Born after 1996, they are the most racially diverse and digitally connected generation in U.S. history. Their formative years have been pockmarked by recession, war, a climate crisis, mass shootings, the aftermath of the 2016 election, endless videos of police violence and now a global pandemic. And so I wanted to know, what shape do their political opinions take? About 24 million Gen Zers will be eligible to vote in November. And for many of them, this will be their very first presidential election. We'll be talking to conservative Gen Z voters in a later show. But we're going to start this series right here in LA where Gen Zer's lean overwhelmingly progressive, like James Kweisi Butler in Koreatown.

JAMES KWEISI BUTLER: This is my little humble abode here.

CHANG: Oh, this is gorgeous.

Also gorgeous - Butler's little, very obedient dog, Milo.

BUTLER: This is my son. This is my pride and joy. I'm a single father of one, right, Milo?

CHANG: Butler is 22. He is a professional model, dancer and actor. And his apartment doubles as a studio for his fourth passion.

BUTLER: And I just take my condenser microphone and I prop it up. And then...

CHANG: This is where he tapes videos for his YouTube channel.

BUTLER: ...Energy and things to talk about with you all. It has been a wild year for sure. So my name is James Kweisi, and I'll see you in my next video. Bye. And I will not get arrested again. OK.

CHANG: Butler, who's queer and Black, uses YouTube as a journal of sorts, where he pours out thoughts about his personal life and his politics. He was arrested six times the last few months, mostly for staying out past curfew during the racial justice protests.

BUTLER: It's like, what? There's no curfew to protesting. Like, they don't have a curfew on killing Black people. OK? So why am I going to listen to the same people who are oppressing me? I'm saying [expletive] you. But then when you tell me to go home at 6, I'm like, OK, yes, master. No. Like, my ancestors, my people, we've done that for too long.

CHANG: Butler was raised in the foster care system until he was 15 years old. They were rough years. Even joyful memories from back then, like the election of Barack Obama as president, carry specks of pain.

BUTLER: I, like, cried by myself. I was young as [expletive]. I was, like, 10, 11, but I cried because a Black man was president, and I was just in a house that told me I have to shave my head off because only girls can have long hair.

CHANG: How much do you think your years in foster care, like all the interaction you had with social workers and lawyers and foster parents - how much do you think all of that affected your confidence in the system today?

BUTLER: Huge. Because I was around these cops and, like you said, lawyers and social workers all the time. And to hear their conversations was sickening, honestly.

CHANG: What do you mean?

BUTLER: The lack of true support and, like, care that they have for these children. So many children are abused through the foster care system and ignored.

CHANG: And Butler's loss of confidence in the foster care system eroded his confidence in the political system, too.

BUTLER: Why do you want to still bow down to a constitution that was [expletive] up and written hundreds of years ago? We're not in hundreds of years ago. When that was written, women, children and Black people were property. Why do we still look at that as our, like, model? Like, do you know what I mean?

CHANG: Do you want to blow up the Constitution? Is that what you're saying?

BUTLER: Oh, I would love that. But we just need to change it. We need to change it. We need to update it, you know?

CHANG: Still, he is going to vote for president this year. And right now, the only feasible choice for him is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. But it is a ticket that comes with baggage, he says. He thinks too many Black people were arrested under Harris' watch as a prosecutor. That said, what he does appreciate about this ticket is that Biden is positioning a Black woman to potentially become the next president of the United States.

BUTLER: We need to hear from Black women. Black men need to hear from Black woman. Black people need to hear from Black women. White people need to hear from Black women. We need to hear Black women voices amplified and loud - loud.

CHANG: Because right now, Butler says, the political system only works for rich, white people. So he started a group called the Black Future Project, which pushes for racial justice and demands criminal justice reforms like defunding the police. For Butler, that is just a small step towards dismantling an entire system that is rotten at its core.

Of course, not all Gen Zers are intent on blowing up the system. Some are ecstatic just being able to participate in it for the first time.

Hi, Manny. Nice wheels. Do you skateboard everywhere?

MANNY CRUZ: Yes, I actually do. I'm trying to work on getting my license and taking my permit test. So right now, I'm skating everywhere I go.

CHANG: Oh, really?

Manny Cruz, who just started college at Cal State Dominguez Hills, met me at a park in Culver City. It's a five-minute skateboard ride away from the two-bedroom apartment where he lives with several family members.

CRUZ: It's my mom, my brother, his fiancee, my two nephews, my little brother, my dog and my bunny (laughter).

CHANG: And your bunny?

CRUZ: (Laughter) Yeah.

CHANG: Cruz just turned 18 a few months ago, right in time for the presidential election.

So how does it feel being able to vote for the first time this year?

CRUZ: It's overwhelming because of, you know, everything going on. And it's like, wow, it can really make a difference what I choose to do.

CHANG: But Cruz feels he still has so much to learn about the political system. He didn't grow up talking about politics with his parents, who came from Oaxaca, Mexico, 19 years ago.

CRUZ: In, like, a household coming from an immigrant family, you're more focused on your education. You're more focused on getting by yourself.

CHANG: And getting by became even more of a focus when the pandemic hit. Both his mother, who cleans houses, and his brother, who's a barber, lost work. So Cruz took on double shifts at In-N-Out Burger to help the family get through the pandemic. He says living this reality while watching the Trump administration's hostile actions towards immigrants, it's one of the reasons he's voting for Joe Biden. And he says the problem isn't President Trump himself; it's what his victory in 2016 revealed about Americans.

CRUZ: You can be angry at Donald Trump all you want. But ultimately, we as a country chose to put him there. In reality, he's just exposed a lot of things within ourselves. A lot of people voted for him because they shared a perspective that he had.

CHANG: And what is that perspective?

CRUZ: I'm not by any means saying the Republicans are racist, but I will say just generally a lot of people who I've seen support him tend to have a lot of racist perspectives.

CHANG: Year after year, the Hispanic vote is more consequential. In fact, Pew Research Center says 1 in 4 Gen Zers in the U.S. is Hispanic. And with that growing influence, Cruz says it is up to the Latino community to get informed and to vote.

CRUZ: With a new candidate comes new possibilities. So I feel with my first time being able to vote, I can take a step towards that possibility of a difference. So I feel it matters a lot, and I wish everyone knew that, too.

CHANG: But other Gen Zers we talked to, they feel that sitting out the presidential election is actually a better way to send a message. That's how it is for Ina Morton. I met up with her at Pan Pacific Park, where she had protested against racial injustice just a few months ago.

INA MORTON: Yeah, just all around here, I remember people being, you know, kind of stacked on the sides of the hills, as well as...

CHANG: Morton is 20. She's half Filipina, half white, a student at Occidental College. And she has no intention of voting for any presidential candidate this year.

MORTON: What I would say was the last domino to fall for me was seeing Bernie get shut out this year after being shut out in 2016. I didn't think he was a perfect guy. I didn't love him or see him as, like, this cult of personality. But I saw him as, like, a very real change to what the legacy of politics in this country had been.

CHANG: And Morton says watching Sanders get shut out reminded her how far off track the Democratic Party has gotten. According to Pew, Gen Z is the country's most pro-government, anti-Trump generation. But Morton says Democrats should not count on Gen Zers to be automatic allies.

MORTON: When the Democratic Party coalesced around Joe Biden, I remember unregistering from the Democratic Party that day.

CHANG: Really?

MORTON: Yeah.

CHANG: That's how against Joe Biden you are.

MORTON: Yeah. I mean, it's not just...

CHANG: Why? What does he represent to you that is wrong?

MORTON: Yeah. It's not just Joe Biden. I mean, it is, really, the Democratic Party as well.

CHANG: Morton says she's grown to resent over time the sorts of positions Democrats continue to take. And since Biden will probably win a blue state like California anyway, she's not going to give him her vote.

MORTON: If I am voting for a candidate who, you know, is the left of two but it's still anti-health care, anti-social housing, I am negotiating for the better of two odds. But at the end of the day, I'm still negotiating for my defeat.

CHANG: And so she's devoting herself to grassroots organizing. She started working for local politicians at the age of 14 but now thinks that grassroots organizing is a more direct path to change. Morton now leads a coalition of groups that demand racial justice, environmental justice and housing rights for all. I listened to her talk about the Black Lives Matter movement...

MORTON: And wanted to stand, you know, in solidarity with BLMLA.

CHANG: ...The welfare system...

MORTON: Having a mutual aid format instead of, like, this idea of a welfare system.

CHANG: ...The housing crisis...

MORTON: So many people who are either unhoused or who will likely become unhoused.

CHANG: ...And the environment...

MORTON: If I live for another, like, 50 or 60 years, the climate is going to start getting pretty unlivable.

CHANG: ...And I came away wondering...

What is it that you grew up with that thinks - makes your generation sound the way you sound right now?

MORTON: Yeah. I think there's so many things. Like, I don't remember a life pre-9/11. So I have grown up under the guise of what so many people would describe as a surveillance state. Like, I don't know what it's like to live in a country where the U.S. hasn't been bombing children in the Middle East. And I've seen, like, even under the most progressive presidents to date, Barack Obama, you know, protesters are still brutalized in Ferguson and Standing Rock. And then the same thing is happening again. And I think now is a time to, like, have a little faith in the idea of being radical and re-imagining what the world could look like.

CHANG: Re-imagining the world isn't exactly easy, but Morton says, it is worth a try.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.