The Political Lives of Black Youth: An Interview with Cathy Cohen (Part Two)

You write near the end of the book, “While the Obama Administration and other black officials are attempting to avoid discussions of race, members of the Republican Party and the Far Right have escalated their racial and racist talks and attacks. These contrasting trends have meant that racial discouse is increasingly being shaped by, or at least framed by, the right wing.” Clearly, you have in mind something like the Tea Party movement. How would you explain the expanding support that the Tea Party has received? What impact do you think such a movement has on the political lives of the black youth you’ve studied?

I don’t think it is a coincidence that recent polls show that only about 17 percent of black youth support the Tea Party, compared to 34 percent of white youth and 15 percent of Latino youth. Black youth understand that the policies advanced by Tea Party candidates and members will mean a more limited role for the government in the lives of everyday Americans. And while many believe that the reach of the government has extended too far, black youth realize that many of the opportunities secured by the mobilization of Blacks and others from the Civil Rights Movement through the election of President Obama have only been implemented and protected by an activist and expanded federal government.

Thus, a significant part of the Tea Party agenda, that which would repeal recently won health reform or pursue deficit reduction by slashing needed safety net programs or reduce funding for public education, or generally reduce and constrain the work of the government, would detrimentally impact the lives of black youth, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Beyond the specific policies of the Tea Party, I believe that their exaggerated discourse, especially as it targets President Obama and attacks him not on the terms of just his policies but also engages in a racial baiting, will reinforce the idea held among black youth that racism remains a major issue in this country and that black people are treated as second-class citizens in the political community. These young people have watched as the Tea Party held rallies in which President Obama has been demeaned and depicted as other, an unspeakable evil on par with Adolph Hitler. They believe that while some of the objections to President Obama are based on the political agenda he has pursued, other motivations for their challenge to President Obama has everything to do with the fact that he is black.

In response to such actions on the part of some members of the Tea Party, it seems that President Obama and his team has made a decision to try and stay above the fray of racial politics, adopting or letting stand a color-blind approach to race in the United States. My concern as you quote in the question is that the absence of leadership by President Obama on the topic of race and racism has allowed the right wing and some more extreme Tea Party types to step into the gap and promote their decidedly pre-civil rights movement view of the ideal racial order.

In contrast to the continued activity of the right on questions of race and racism, those public officials that might traditionally be mobilized to fight for and articulate a political agenda meant to improve the opportunities and lives of black youth, specifically black and progressive politicians like Barack Obama, are exceedingly reticent to make and defend an explicitly racialized agenda. And so black youth are left to fend for themselves on issues of race and racism, again learning the lesson that politicians are not to be trusted and that even in an environment where expansion of our political community is promised, some will fight the equal rights and inclusion of black youth seemingly forever!

As you’ve noted, the perspectives of black youth are rarely discussed as part of our understanding of contemporary politics. What do we understand differently about the current political scene if their views are factored into our analysis?

I think it is hard to understand and think effectively about the issues that confront us without thinking about the perspective and lived experience of black youth. As I discussed in a different question, black youth are at the center of many of the most troubling issues confronting the country. Issues ranging from the decline in public education to the rise in incarceration and the dominance of the prison industrial complex all disproportionately impact black youth. So it will be hard to develop effective and inclusive policies, programs and approaches to these issues without seriously considering the perspectives and including the insights of black youth.

However, it is more than just a simple gesture of inclusion when thinking about how black youth help us to understand and imagine differently the political scene. We have to acknowledge that young black people often have a different take on issues than others groups of young people that necessitate different policy choices and political collaborations. For example, if we take the issue of whether we are currently or even approaching a post-racial state, black and white youth think very differently about this issue.

Since the election of Barack Obama, much has been made of the generational divide in the populace. Some have suggested that once the so-called millennials come to dominate the political domain, many of the thorny social issues that have caused great debate and consternation among the American public will be resolved. This line of reasoning implies that young people who embrace and personify a more inclusive society will eventually take over policy-making and thought leadership, moving both areas in a more liberal direction. Commentators point to the significant differences in opinion registered among various generations on topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion as evidence of the more inclusive worldview held by the majority of young people.

The promised harmony around social issues that is presumably evident among younger Americans extends beyond the confines of sexually infused social policy to the prominent and always simmering issue of race. An article published in The New York Times suggests that much of the problem of race and racism found in the Tea Party and the NAACP has to do with the fact that they both are largely comprised of older members who grew up as the targets or beneficiaries of Jim Crow. Columnist Matt Bai writes, “The Tea Party and the N.A.A.C.P. represent disproportionately older memberships. And herein lies a problem with so much of our discussion about race and politics in the Obama era: we tend not to recognize the generational divide that underlies it.”

As evidence of this substantial generational divide, Bai cites pre-midterm data from the Pew Research Center indicating that “there is nearly a 20 point spread between Mr. Obama’s approval ratings among voters younger than 30 and those older than 65.” Perhaps Bai’s most important observation is one that he seems to add almost as a throwaway: his comment that “These numbers probably do reflect some profound racial differences among the generations.” I show in the book that significant and profound differences in how young whites, blacks, and Latinos think about such topics as racism, citizenship, and gay and lesbian issues still exist today and that these differences are a defining feature of American politics as practiced by the young today, even in the age of Obama.

Far from the generation of millennials signaling the end of race or even the beginning of a post-racial society, I present data in the book that suggest that deep divides still exist among young people, with black youth particularly skeptical about the idea of a post-racial anything. I note in the book that on a survey we administered seven months after the 2008 election, we asked 18-35 year-old respondents if they believed racism was still a major problem. The divide between black and white young people was stark: 68 percent of black youth stated that racism remains a major problem, compared to 33 percent of white respondents and 58 percent of Latino respondents

A similar split was evident when we asked if blacks had achieved racial equality. A near majority of whites (48 percent) thought blacks had achieved equality, compared to 15 percent of blacks and 39 percent of Latinos. As we know the racial landscape is far more expansive than one that accounts for just blacks and whites. When asked if Latinos had achieved racial equality, support for this assertion dropped among whites. In fact, only 29 percent of whites, 16 percent of blacks, and 20 percent of Latinos believed that Latinos had achieved racial equality.

In the many articles written about the generational shift in attitudes on social issues, such as gay marriage or even race, few, if any, take the time to disaggregate the data by race and ethnicity to determine whether there might be divergent trends among the many groups comprising “youth.” When researchers disaggregate their data (that is, if they have sampled enough people of color to pursue statistical analysis of different racial and ethnic groups) they often find that there are significant differences in how young people from the various racial and ethnic groups that make up the American populace think about not only same-sex marriage and abortion, but also race. If leaders continue to make policy and academic insist on writing articles with data assuming that the ideas of white youth represent the attitudes of all young people, they are all in for a rude awakening.

As the demographics of the country continue to move from one dominated-in population and power-by whites to one increasingly populated by individuals of color, our analyses must start paying attention to the ideas, attitudes, and actions of young people of color. Making the experiences of black and Latino youth central to our understanding and “work” around race provides a very different perspective in terms of what we must do. In the realm of race, the experience of black youth and, at times, Latino youth is that race still figures prominently in their lives, shaping where they can live, if and where they work, and how state authorities, such as the police, treat them. For these young people, racism still blocks their access to full citizenship, in particular the psychological aspects of believing that one belongs to and is valued in the larger political community. In the book I use the experiences of black youth to underscores the necessity of not just including but highlighting the voices and experiences of black youth if we are to bolster democratic practice in the 21st century.

Cathy J. Cohen is the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science. . She is also the Deputy Provost for Graduate Education and the former Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. Cohen is the author of two books: Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (Oxford University Press 2010) and The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (University of Chicago Press 1999) and co-editor with Kathleen Jones and Joan Tronto of Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader (NYU, 1997). Cohen is principal investigator of two major projects: The Black Youth Project and the Mobilization, Change and Political and Civic Engagement Project. Her general field of specialization is American politics, although her research interests include African-American politics, women and politics, lesbian and gay politics, and social movements.