As the country braces for a bruising general election fight between John McCain and Barack Obama, I can't help but wonder whether young black voters are going to matter at all. Four years ago, you couldn't even think about the presidential election without having someone toss you a "VOTE OR DIE" T-shirt or tell you who his or her favorite artist was going to vote for.
Four years later, the political landscape has shifted, and there is little media focus on the demographic of 18-to-25-year-old blacks and the role they will, or will not play, in November. Even the unprecedented race and gender dialogue of 2008 has created no sustained discussion about young black voters. So does the black youth vote matter in 2008?
I have a dear friend from Cleveland, my hometown, who is politically active on both an institutional and grassroots level and has raised her son to be not only active, but critical. He is not yet of voting age, so I hesitate to even mention him, but he so personifies the attitude of many young people today. Following the 2004 presidential election he said, "We vote…and we're still dying…now what?"
It wasn't just the process that played the fresh-faced voters in 2004; it was also hip-hop. Many organizations sold the message that if Kerry won, so would we. It is irresponsible to shift the focus from building a legitimate political base to getting one rich white guy elected.
Most of our national hip-hop organizations failed to add value to the youth vote after the '04 election. The organizations relied on a handful of rich, white donors from the left who could care less about the young black vote and simply assumed that if you mobilize "young Negroes" they will vote Democrat. There were stacks of promises to continue the movement after the election, but no delivery. When the campaign money stopped, so did the mobilization.
So four years later, my dear friend's son is still as astute, but a bit jaded, and questioning the real value of the system.
Not to discount the scores of young blacks working the campaign trail, but I speak to countless young people that are excited about the candidates in the same way they would be about this week's motion picture release.
The work of traditional civil rights organizations to engage this demographic cannot be denied in a post-Jena Six," Obama "Yes We Can" environment. I, however, would submit that the black youth vote is somewhat like the declining U.S. dollar. In the face of a changing national racial environment and on the heels of two presidential cycles, affected by mass voter disenfranchisement, there has been a considerable decline in the value of this demographics voting importance to the broader electorate. Very much like the dollar, much of its decline is an effect of several internal factors that contribute to currency value reduction.
The young electorate in the African-American community has been plagued by an antiquated strategy handed down from past generations that justifies the undying support of one of two parties. This has especially diminished the value of the vote when neither party effectively provides a legislative agenda representative of any demographic in the diverse African-American political landscape.
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.