According to new research released today by CIRCLE and the Generational Alliance, younger African Americans (ages 18-29) represented 14% of all younger voters, just about the same as their proportion of the whole young-adult population (14.4%). That means that young African Americans voted on par with other young adults, not a bad comparative showing when you consider that they face the challenges of lower average educational attainment and higher rates of disenfranchisement. On the other hand, keeping pace with other young Americans was not such a great result when the turnout of all 18-29s was only 21%. And younger African Americans lost a lead that they had previously held: they had the highest turnout rate among young people in 2008. If Black youth turnout had been higher in 2010, it would have been good news for Democrats (86% of young adult African Americans voted Democratic) and a source of political strength in the African American community.
Could anything have been done to raise the turnout rate? To start, politicians should not have taken it for granted. Biko Baker, one of the best young organizers in America and a member of CIRCLE’s advisory board, offered to take a leave of absence from his nonpartisan work to help organize for the Democrats in urban Wisconsin. The party told him it wasn’t necessary: “we truly think that people will be inspired to help the President during these next couple of weeks.” But our own focus groups in Baltimore in 2008, plus the observations of real experts like Cathy Cohen (director of the Black Youth Project) found that young African Americans were never in love with Barack Obama. Even in 2008, they felt hope mixed with a great degree of skepticism. It was an open question whether they would be “inspired to help the President,” and much would depend on what he did for them. In the end, turnout was low–not compared to other young people, but compared to what the Democrats needed to win.
To engage young African Americans, the administration could have explicitly addressed racial injustice and issues perceived as racially salient, such as sentencing disparities. Instead, as Cohen writes, a decision was made to “run away from race, and only respond to the issue of race when it was in crisis mode …, leaving young people feeling alienated by the rhetoric and discourse around race in this country.” I agree that the administration has been muted on racial issues–probably more so than other Democratic administrations would be–out of fear of reinforcing animus against the Black president. But I also think that the politics were tough. Explicit discussions of race would have alienated some white voters, and it would have been hard for the president to deliver more than rhetoric on issues like sentencing disparities.
A second strategy would have been to address the critical issues facing young African Americans. The September unemployment rate for African Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 was 32 percent (edging down to 29.7 percent in October). That is catastrophic. But I fear that our political system and climate gave the administration inadequate tools to respond.
The third strategy would have been to give young African Americans a voice and work to do on behalf of the causes that they care about. Many thousands were mobilized as active supporters of Barack Obama in 2008. When the election was over, they should have been maintained as part of an interracial social movement. It would have been illegal as well as unethical to use public funds or the White House to support that movement, but the millions of Obama donors could have been persuaded to fund grassroots work privately.
That would have meant hiring people like Biko Baker and giving him real authority. In turn, he advises integrating media and creative work into a youth movement. He cites as an example the Black Youth Project’s “Democracy Remixed” Video Contest. Thus I’ll end with my favorite video from that contest, by Chris Webb. I don’t necessarily agree with Webb’s whole message, which focuses relentlessly on culture change within the Black community. But I post his work because it exemplifies the excellence of young people’s political voice.