Young, Black and in Decline in the Obama Age?

Despite all the talk of their influence, young African-American voters seem curiously unengaged in this election campaign.

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Our real focus should be developing our own political agenda that serves as the litmus for our political support. Many ethnic communities have understood the value of having a presence in both parties, to ensure representation on all the issues in their broad political agenda.

The fight is not to make the Democrats or Republicans like us, but to have a clearly-stated agenda that forces each to recognize our true position.

Our value is increased when we define the issues, rather than having them handed to us by a political party. An agenda focus is especially important for young black voters. Issues such as social security and climate change must be addressed across party lines and black youths must, in turn, demand that their leaders—regardless of party affiliation—provide adequate solutions.

Finally, the new generation of black voters must set clear expectations for a return on their voting investment. In the past, we have seen the huge impact of black voters on many local, state and federal elections drastically, only to get nothing in return from the officials they helped elect. The 1960s Voting and Civil Rights Acts were worthy of our vote. The appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the high court was worthy of our vote. But we have supported countless candidates that claimed to love black people but never delivered the legislative product our vote was supposed to purchase.

Many hail Bill Clinton as the first black president but don’t associate him with the demoralizing federal sentencing laws passed under his watch. While Clinton supported and pushed policies that were favorable to some blacks, he never carried a black agenda worthy of an uncritical vote and definitely not the title of first black anything.

The truth is, the young black vote is as valuable and necessary as it was decades ago, but how can we encourage candidates—Obama and McCain—to court this demographic when it is the same demographic (us) who continue to diminish our own value by not demanding anything in return for our vote. Developing an agenda, distinct from that of any political party, on which to base those demands is the first step toward real change.

Jeff Johnson is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, social activist and political strategist who has served as senior advisor for media and youth outreach for People for the American Way, national youth director for the NAACP and vice president for the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.