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.