Young, Black and Voting

Your Take: Young African Americans are engaged in politics but aren't guaranteed to turn out in 2012.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

* 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 except vote (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.

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