Another Tea Party, led by black youth?
Cathy J. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, has explored the dreams and reality of young, black Americans and come away with some troubling discoveries. Black young people cling to the same ideals as all Americans: a wish to be treated equally, feel safe in their neighborhoods, have a good job and lead a fulfilling life. But Cohen, principal investigator of the Black Youth Project, has found the dream collides with a prevalent sentiment among young blacks – that they are second class citizens in their own country and are treated worse than most immigrants. Her findings are described in her book "Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics," recently released by Oxford University Press. Here, Cohen assesses the political implications of black-youth disillusionment for the coming elections.
By Cathy J. Cohen
It is hard to believe that less than two years after the election of Barack Obama, aided significantly by the historic turnout of young voters, 18-29, the Democrats are wondering if young people will vote in the 2010 midterm elections and which party they will support.
Every indication suggests that a majority of young voters will vote for Democratic candidates, but the gap in their support for the two parties has dwindled from its record high of 32 points in 2008 to only 14 percentage points today. In fact the vote among young voters was so overwhelming for Barack Obama in 2008 that it prompted a number of commentators to predict the eventual extinction of the Republican Party, as young people, they suggested, would continue to gravitate away from the Republicans, diminishing its base and success.
Fast forward to 2010 and the prognosis of the death of the Republican Party seems, well, wacky. Faced with the anger and mobilization of the Tea Party movement and the reality that much of their own base is not that interested or energized by the Democratic agenda put forward over the last two years, we will undoubtedly see the Democratic Party scrambling to speak to and mobilize young voters, at least those on college campuses.
And while turning out the youth vote should be on the minds and in the plans of Democratic strategists, I would urge them to think long-term and focus on a looming disconnect that could have far graver consequences not only for the party but also for the country. I am talking about the political alienation that many black youth continue to feel toward nearly any form of traditional politics and the state writ large.
Although young blacks turned out in record numbers to support Barack Obama in 2008, it was Obama and the historic nature of the election that energized them -- not the Democratic Party or its agenda.
In focus groups with young blacks in Chicago they noted with pride that they had voted for the nation’s first black president, yet the same young people were quick to point out that they had low expectations about the impact of Obama or any politician on their personal life circumstances. Even as they celebrated the election of Obama as a symbolic step forward for the country, few of the young people in the room believed that the election of President Obama would change the high levels of violence in their neighborhoods, improve the poor quality of their schools, stop their harassment by the police, or provide them with more jobs that would pay a decent wage so they could provide for themselves and their families.
To be sure, over the last few decades the general trajectory for some black youth has changed for the better. More young blacks than ever attend private schools, complete high school, and enter and graduate from a four-year college. But these young people are still the minority of black youth.
The majority of black youth still live with and suffer through disproportionate rates of incarcertion, poverty, disease, unemployment, foreclosures, failing public schools, and neighborhood violence. Far too many young black people talk about themselves as second-class citizens even today.
In my own representative national survey, I found that only 42 percent of black youth 18-25 felt like “a full and equal citizen in this country with all the rights and protections that other people have,” compared to a majority (66%) of young whites. Sadly, young Latinos felt similarly disconnected with only 43 percent believing themselves to be full and equal citizens.
For disconnected and alienated young blacks and Latinos the question they contemplate during this election season is not who to vote for but why they should vote now or in the future. Few politicians from either party has shown the moral resolve and political will to do what is necessary to change the lived reality of these young and marginalized members of our political community.
Maybe the best thing we can hope for is that black youth and other marginalized members of society will build their own movement, running insurgent candidates and building a grassroots base where their anger and voices will dominate the national political agenda — a Tea Party lead by black youth!
Steven E. Levingston
| October 14, 2010; 12:11 PM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: black youth disillusionment; black youth politics; black youth elections
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