Young, Black and Voting
Your Take: Young African Americans are engaged in politics but aren't guaranteed to turn out in 2012.
In 2008 young African Americans set an all-time voter-turnout record. Fifty-eight percent of black 18- to 29-year-olds voted -- the highest rate that any ethnic or racial group of young adults has ever achieved.
Barack Obama deserved some credit, but young African Americans had posted relatively high turnout rates ever since the 1980s, often matching whites. That is an impressive record because wealth and education tend to boost voting for all demographic groups. If young African Americans achieve voting rates that equal or surpass those of young whites despite still having less wealth and less access to higher education (and despite deliberate efforts to suppress their votes), then being black is a positive predictor of political engagement.
The same pattern also applies to other forms of engagement. In a national survey that my organization,CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), conducted in 2006 (before then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for president), we found that young African Americans were the most likely to belong to groups involved with politics; donate money to candidates and parties; display buttons or signs; and contact the media. Although young white people are somewhat more involved in nonpolitical volunteering than their black counterparts, the gap is not large.
Young adults' civic engagement is an asset for the black community, creating political power and benefiting the individuals who participate. Working on causes with other people helps build skills, confidence, networks and a sense of satisfaction and purpose.
But levels of participation are uneven. Some young African Americans engage much more than others, and levels of engagement sink in some years. In 2010, although young blacks voted at a higher rate than young whites, both groups turned out poorly: About three-quarters stayed home.
Cathy Cohen, a distinguished political scientist at the University of Chicago and head of the Black Youth Project, predicted the low turnout well before Election Day and blamed the national Democratic Party for ignoring young adults. Even though President Obama will be on the ballot again in 2012, there is certainly no guarantee that black youth participation will be strong.
Anyone who cares about youth civic engagement should dig beneath broad generalizations and stereotypes and recognize the diversity within all demographic groups, young African Americans certainly included. As a first step, we have conducted a "cluster analysis" of census data on civic engagement. This method identifies groups of people who have different civic-engagement profiles.
Looking at the most recent data (from 2010), we find that young African Americans are divided into six clusters:
* The Broadly Engaged (17.5 percent of black youths) filled many different leadership roles and did most of the civic and community work performed by young African Americans.
* The Political Specialists (15.4 percent) were focused on voting and other forms of political activism.
* The Donors (9.7 percent) gave money to political or social causes but did little else.
* The Under-Mobilized (19.1 percent) were registered to vote but did not actually vote in 2010 or do much else. We cannot tell from the census data, but many may have registered and voted in 2008 and then chose not to turn out again in 2010. Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, young African Americans were by far the most likely to be Under-Mobilized.
* The Talkers (13.8 percent) report discussing political issues and were avid communicators online but did not take action otherwise.
* The Civically Alienated (22.5 percent) did hardly anything at all.
The Under-Mobilized and the Talkers represent important opportunities. The Under-Mobilized showed that they cared enough to register, but then they did not vote in 2010, for a variety of reasons, probably including a lack of outreach from candidates and political parties. (Biko Baker from the League of Young Voters wrote a disturbing account of how the Democratic Party in Wisconsin ignored African-American young people.)
The Talkers communicate with peers and family -- and we know from the census data that some of that communication concerns political and social issues -- but they do not take action. They show interest and concern, but they need guidance and organization to take the step into action.
Another important group was seen in 2008 but not in 2010. It consisted of people who only voted, and it included 29.7 percent of young African Americans in 2008. The fact that they did vote shows that they cared and were connected to networks that could inspire and mobilize them. But the fact that they did nothing exceptvote (and then mostly didn't return to the polls in 2010) suggests that they need ongoing support and encouragement.
Finally, the Civically Alienated cluster is not typical of African-American youth as a whole. They represent only about one in five. But they are deeply disconnected from all forms of civic and community affairs, and that is a problem. The lack of connectedness reduces their political power, makes them easy to ignore and keeps them outside of networks and organizations where people are working together constructively. They pay a personal price for their disengagement.
Those of us who study civic participation find much to admire in the record of young African Americans. But no one should rest content with past successes. The upcoming election may be alienating: Some pundits are already calling it the "Disaffection Election."
It would be a shame to lose the lingering momentum of 2008. To keep young African
Americans engaged, we would recommend focusing on the Under-Mobilized and Talkers of 2010, while making sure that the Civically Alienated are invited to participate for the first time.
To view the full report "Youth Civic Engagement in the United States, 2008-2010: Understanding a Diverse Generation," click here.
Peter Levine directs CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.