Jeff Johnson, Guest Commentary
– As the country braces for ups and downs in the 2008 ‘Race for the White House,’ my mind can’t help but wonder whether the constituents that were so important in 2004 even matter. Four years ago, you couldn’t talk 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 voting for. Four years later, the political landscape has shifted and there is little media focus on the specific demographic of blacks 18 to 25 years old and the role they will or will not play in November. Even the ’08 Race and Gender dialogue has created no sustained discussion on the black youth vote. So does the black youth vote matter in 2008?
I have a dear friend from Cleveland, OH, my hometown and the poorest large city in America two out of the last four years. She 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 voting age, so I question even mentioning him, but he personifies the attitude of many young people. Following the 2004 Presidential election he says, “We voted……..and were still dying…….now what?” Four years later he is still as astute, a bit jaded, and questioning the real value of the system. Not to discount the scores of young blacks working the campaign trail, I speak to countless young people that are excited about a candidate, but in the same way as they would be about this week’s motion picture release.
No one can deny the work of traditional civil rights organizations to engage this demo that is highly energized in a “Post Jena-Six,” Obama “Yes We Can” environment. I however would submit that the black youth vote is somewhat like the declining US dollar. In the face of a changing national racial environment and on the heels of two presidential cycles effected 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 affect of several internal factors that contribute to currency value reduction.
It wasn’t just the process that played out the young black voter 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. There were stacks of promises to continue the movement after the election, but no delivery. When the money stopped so did we. And where did that money come from? 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. Within the black community there existed (and exists) the monies to have kept the movement going, but we didn’t want to invest. And that is were we also diminish our value, like the dollar. Candidates talk to and more importantly listen to people that write checks to campaigns. We pay to look good, but won’t invest in the legislation that makes our future good, and will pay for a playstation3, but not pay to play the political game.
The youth 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 ethic communities have understood the value of having presence in and around both parties to ensure representation on ALL the issues in their broad political agenda represents. The fight is not to make the D’s or R’s 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 verses them being handed to us by a political party.
Finally, the young black voter must have stated and clear expectations for a return on that vote investment. We have seen too many local, state and federal elections drastically impacted by black communities that received nothing in return for their vote. The 1960’s 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 policy that was favorable to some blacks, he never carried a BLACK AGENDA worthy of an uncritical vote and definitely not the title of ‘first black’ anything.
If the young black vote wishes to increase its value it has to demand the service it paid for at the polls. We can no longer make a bigger fuss about not getting our fries with a $5.00 value meal than we do not receiving true legislative representation for something worth so much more…our vote.
No matter who wins the party’s nomination, the question remains, how can we encourage Obama, Clinton, and yes, even McCain to court our demographic when it is us who has diminished its value. The truth is that the young black vote IS as valuable and necessary as it was decades ago when we put forth deliberate action to ensure electoral employment, fight the right battles, and demand a return on our investment.
Jeff Johnson is a Washington, DC 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. He is best known as the host and producer of The Cousin Jeff Chronicles, a series of mini-documentaries airing on Black Entertainment Television. Johnson appears weekly on Rap City, engaging and enlightening a nation of young viewers on important political and social issues.