Will Black Millennials Dance With the ‘Party of Our Parents’?

For young African Americans, an automatic vote for the Democratic Party is not guaranteed.

Jonathan Butler (third from right), a University of Missouri grad student who did a seven-day hunger strike, at the campus of the University of Missouri on Nov. 9, 2015, in Columbia.
Jonathan Butler (third from right), a University of Missouri grad student who did a seven-day hunger strike, at the campus of the University of Missouri on Nov. 9, 2015, in Columbia. Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

“Tamir Rice was 12 years old. He was murdered outside for using his imagination.”

The day after the announcement that there would be no indictment of the police officer who killed the Cleveland boy, with tweets and think pieces sprouting out of our nation’s racial woodwork, those words from Mississippi-born writer Kiese Laymon arrested me. With tear-filled eyes and a rage-filled heart, I tried—yet again—to make sense of America’s merciless plague of black death. I couldn’t. I still can’t. I mean, how much sense can we make of it, when black children can’t play outside without fear of losing their lives at the hands of those sworn to protect them?

“Until the killing of … black mothers’ sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son,” Ella Baker proclaimed in 1964, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

It’s winter in America, but the political climate is sweltering. Politicians are sweating under the heat of organized protests, while many activists are fighting the fatigue that comes with resisting institutionalized racism. Yet, today’s freedom fighters refuse to rest—from Ferguson to Yale, from Mizzou to Baltimore.

As the 2016 election draws near, the energy of Black Lives Matter is center stage. The Democratic Party is hustling to secure the black vote; black millennials are an important demographic.

“If blacks’ support of Democrats drops from the highs of President Obama’s 93 and 95 percent showings back to the historical average of 85 percent, it could cost Democrats a net of 2.8 million votes,” Donovan Ramsey wrote in a recent New York Times article.

Clearly, Democrats can’t afford the cost of losing black voters. But can black millennials afford the consequences of dancing with the “party of our parents”?

I came of age in the ’90s under the first “first black president”: Bill Clinton. I vividly remember church deacons praising him over Easter dinner, just moments after praising God. President Clinton is “on our side,” I was told, just as God was. But was he? According to political scientist Naomi Murakawa, policies under his leadership established mandatory sentencing minimums, expanded the federal death penalty and gave billions of dollars to local police departments—helping to establish what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” To be sure, Clinton’s 1994 “Three Strikes, You’re Out” federal crime bill, alongside his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which ended “welfare as we know it”—helped replace an imperfect safety net with an insidious carceral network.

Clinton wasn’t our messiah after all. He was, however, our John the Baptist: preparing the way for black millennials’ uncritical embrace of the Democratic Party and its “true savior,” Barack Obama. A messianic figure with a Midwestern tongue, Obama evangelized the nation with his own set of parables about personal responsibility and the so-called American dream, couched in a brilliant campaign about “hope” and “change.” But as his second term comes to an end, that hope is eclipsed by the hellish conditions of black America—from underemployment and over-incarceration to generational poverty and police brutality. Truth is: since 2008, America has seen more corpses than “change.” 

Despite the failures of Democratic politicians, black and white alike, black millennials are expected to subscribe to a stale civil rights narrative. It goes something like this: “Your ancestors couldn’t vote; they fought and died so we could vote; so get out there and vote!” Yes, voting has long been a tool within the black freedom struggle in the United States. But what does it mean for Tamir to be the target of police bullets as black millennials become the targets of the Democratic Party?