When Hillary Clinton lost the election to Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, a generation of children of color lost their innocence. For anyone born in 2005 or later, the first and only president they had known was Black and beloved. Not only did their new president ascend to the White House after a campaign that made a joke of the political process, but many young people also saw their parents crumble that night, in a way they’d never seen before.
Four years later, those kids are teens — and they’re more politically astute than their ’80s and ’90s counterparts could have dreamed of. Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair were barely homework assignments for us; Gen Z teens might not even be old enough to vote, but they know who they’d vote for all the way down their local ballot, what it means to flip the Senate, and why RBG’s legacy is also problematic.
On the eve of the upcoming election, we gathered a half-dozen students coming off their first introduction to a White president and grilled them on their thoughts on the Trump presidency, the past four years of political theater, and how Covid-19 has changed their lives forever.
- Amber, ninth grade
- Daniel, first-year college student
- Daijah, first-year college student
- Jordan, seventh grade
- Mazy, eighth grade
- Nevaeh, ninth grade
- Sofia, eighth grade
LEVEL: Let’s get right to it. What’s the biggest difference between four years ago and now? What has a Trump presidency really looked like to you?
Daijah: I think people tend to say it’s the economy that’s changed. But it’s more personal for me. Since Trump has been in office, I’ve seen a change in people and friends that I’ve known. People who were, let’s say, quietly discriminatory before? They’ve come out as openly discriminatory towards different people. With this administration, people clearly feel comfortable saying all kinds of stuff.
Amber: It’s true. And I mean, there’s so much violence. And yes, there’s always been violence. But the past four years have been just… the Black Lives Matter movement has had to grow so much. The police violence is increased. The past four years have shown us a lot.
Jordan: I’ve seen a lot of latent racism. And it comes straight from Trump. He literally said, these are “shithole countries.” If the president says that, there are a lot of people who feel like they can say things like that, too. There are a lot of people saying, “If he can do it, why can’t I?”
The “shithole countries” remark reminded me that there were a few times in the past four years where I felt like, “What just happened here?” Have any of you had moments during this presidency where you were genuinely shocked?
Sofia: Definitely the comments our current president has made towards women. This all honestly shocked me. I just couldn’t help but think what would have happened if the previous president had talked about women this way?
What do you all remember about 2016, when our current president was elected?
Amber: My mom works at Spelman College, and they always have a big display to watch the returns coming in. So, I’m there with my mom, and we’re watching the numbers. And then, as the night goes on, Trump’s numbers keep going up and up and up. And I’ll never ever forget, my mom said, “Amber, let’s go so I can go hide in my closet and cry.” I never forgot that. When we got home, I went to bed; the next morning, when I came downstairs, I heard he won, and I cried. I knew this was not okay. I was devastated.
How old were you?
Amber: I was 10 years old.
Jordan: I remember getting to school, and one of my friends, who’s Black, we just went straight up to each other and stared at each other. And he’s like, “So, wait, this guy is actually president now?”
Mazy: The school I attend, it was like we all had to bond together. And the teachers were kinda… they knew what we might be feeling and how we would stand on the election. So, when I went to school, it felt normal that everyone I knew felt the same disappointment. We were asked to talk about how we felt, and it was just, it was really bad. I was nine years old and in the fifth grade.
What are adults — your parents and teachers — getting wrong right now? What do you need from us during this time of civil unrest, political unrest, and a global pandemic?
Mazy: We need the basic tools to get our work done. Internet, electronics. Just ask us. We might need better headphones. It could be basic paper supplies or snacks. Everything is so crazy right now. We might not ask for stuff we need. It would help if sometimes the grown-ups asked us what we need.
Mazy’s my kid, guys. She really wants a MacBook Air. So that’s what this is about.
Mazy: [Laughter] No, really, it might not be something like that! It’s other stuff. We’re just not asking for what we need.
Daijah: For me, I need time from my parents. I just started college, and it’s just the same thing over and over, because it’s virtual. And sometimes my parents are asking about schoolwork, and I’m like, I need time and privacy right now. And I also need them to let me take care of things. I want to be taken more seriously. I think because we learn about politics from social media, adults don’t take that seriously.
Nevaeh: We need good support and good communication with our parents. Because I know a lot of people who have become depressed and got anxiety. Talking to your parents helps. It’s all about mental health.
And we know now that politics can affect that. Because of that, I actually find myself checking out of what’s happening. Are you all staying on top of polls and news accounts?
Daijah: I’m very much paying attention! I have people I care about who will be affected by this election. I’m invested, now more than ever. But I do understand it’s a privilege to be able to follow the election and be able to have an opinion.
Daniel: I have to say I’ve checked out. But one thing I pay attention to is the advertisements. Biden’s campaign ads will say, “Vote for Biden.” Like, that’s it. And then Trump’s campaign will do these really weird campaigns. They’ll have a picture of Biden and he’s all green and they’ll say, “You don’t want to vote for a zombie.” And it’s like, seriously? They will literally say don’t vote for the zombie! It’s all so strange to me.
Jordan: Remember when they told people to upload messages for his birthday? That was just… [Shakes head]
Daniel: There’s a really stark contrast. It’s like, the Trump campaign will ask, “Are you voting for Donald J. Trump or Sleepy Joe?”
Daijah and Daniel, you’re both 19 and voting for the first time next week. You are voting, right?
Daijah: Of course.
My first vote was for Bill Clinton in 1992. It didn’t feel exciting or groundbreaking; I just voted for who my parents voted for and that was that. I sort of wish you all didn’t have to think about politics, but between that and the pandemic, you have no choice but to know what’s going on. Will you all be different when this era is over?
Daniel: I’ll never be the same. We’ve had so much online communication that I feel like it’s made me more empathetic, as strange as that sounds.
Mazy: I spent half of the year in quarantine, and I was so bored. And then I realized: It’s a privilege to be bored. We used to get distracted by school and our friends, and this time has been about realizing that you have to take care of yourself. You are your own person.