Last week The Washington Post published a piece about black millennials and voting, the headline of which boldly declared: “Despite Black Lives Matter, young black Americans aren’t voting in higher numbers.” The headline and the story were both unsurprising and frustrating, a disturbing affirmation that, for all of the talk about young black America in the media, we’re still far from understood.
Unlike white millennials, we aren’t allowed to deviate from norms, to be untraditional. We have to follow strict standards and conventions. We have to be acceptable and respectable. We can’t have nuanced views and ideology, and if we have the nerve, the audacity to be angry, we better have something to show for it.
The Post’s article only affirms that sentiment, and as the primary election post-mortems begin, we can expect to hear a lot more of it. The piece claims that, despite all the work and visibility of groups like Black Lives Matter, there’s been a decrease in young black voting in 2016, implying that the movement has failed to produce electoral success. “The generation of African Americans pushing criminal-justice issues and institutional racism to the forefront of the presidential election had little effect at the ballot box during this primary season,” it notes, before pivoting to a “concerned” conversation over black youth turnout.
But there’s a problem with that frame—actually, a few of them. First, Black Lives Matter never claimed to represent all black youth or be responsible for mobilizing an entire generation at the polls. Black Lives Matter organizers have said repeatedly that voter mobilization isn’t a priority and that they were not endorsing a presidential candidate in this election.
Black Lives Matter activist and California State University professor Melina Abdullah summed up the strategy on Democracy Now! in early March: “We’re not telling people not to vote, we’re simply not endorsing any presidential candidate, recognizing that where we want to put our time and energy is in the development of people to act in their own interests and on their own behalf.”
Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter echoed that sentiment, telling the Associated Press that the movement was too young and new to endorse a presidential candidate, while revealing some skepticism over getting into the electoral politics game. “Black Lives Matter as a network will not, does not, has not, ain’t going to endorse any candidates,” Garza said. “Now if there are activists within the movement that want to do that independently, they should feel free and if that’s what makes sense for their local conditions, that’s fantastic. But as a network, that’s not work we’re engaged in yet.”
As a movement, agnosticism around voting has been crystal clear, whether you agree with it or not. The movement’s strategy lies beyond the ballet box. Yet we’re not even fully through the presidential primary, and political reporters and pundits are already eager to hold the movement accountable for its perceived failure.
A lot of pressure is being put on black millennials to vote, and understandably so. This growing bloc (along with their Latino peers) is an incredibly important part of presidential politics, especially on the Democratic side. Yet, all too often, our actual political accomplishments are dismissed or overlooked, while we are held to a standard of respectability that other movements are not. A sect of young black Americans are thinking outside of the box, making sure America knows that black lives matters, rallying against a system that hasn’t worked for them. If our great primary system can get only 20 percent of all Americans out to vote in a good year, it seems an unfair to hold a group that has been marginalized and disenfranchised (and still is, in many places) to a higher standard.
Moreover, the hand-wringing over whether and how young black people are engaging the 2016 election begins with the assumption that, if they aren’t voting, they aren’t participating in politics. If anything, in the last few years young black folks have been more active, more “woke” than in decades—despite the fact that our path to change may not look like it has in the past.
A study by the Black Youth Project not only found that black youth voted in higher rates than any other racial and ethnic group in 2012, but also revealed that 71 percent of black youth believed they could “make a difference through participating in politics,” compared with 56 percent of Latinos and 52 percent of whites. However, the same report found that black millennials are looking at political participation in more ways than just voting—a sentiment that Black Lives Matter has echoed.
Instead of focusing on those facts, which have been replicated in numerous studies, the Post article singularly focuses on shoddy and shaky exit poll data (read this in The New York Times, or FiveThirtyEight, or The Guardian) from 25 states to imply that this controversial movement has failed politically.
“To use voter turnout as a measure of success for the movement is also an ill analysis. Individuals within the movement did not come out with a statement saying, ‘our goal is to transform these upcoming elections and to oust everyone that is there,’” as other political movements have, says Ifeoma Ike, an attorney and co-founder of Black and Brown People Vote. She points to the Tea Party, for which electoral politics has been a clear part of the strategy. “That is not the goal of this movement for the preservation of black lives; the goal is the preservation of black life.”
Talking about a decline in black youth voting is fair. But mapping that trend onto a movement that was never about voter turnout (while quoting President Obama, out of context, urging Howard University graduates to go beyond “hashtag activism”) makes it appear if young blacks are eschewing politics in favor of pointless protest. That’s neither fair nor true.
The Post acknowledged the movement’s influence in changing the conversation and helping the Democratic candidates focus on the criminal-justice system and racism, and it quotes a professor who believes BLM can’t be held responsible for black youth voter turnout. But it buries these facts under its eye-grabbing premise of BLM’s electoral failure, along with examples of the concrete political successes that have been linked to Black Lives Matter, like the unseating of Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez in Chicago and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty in Ohio. And it completely ignores the campaigns for office that have come out of the movement, like DeRay McKesson’s run for mayor of Baltimore and Rashad Turner’s run for Minnesota state representative.
Sure, we can analyze BLM, we can scrutinize it, call its strategies into question, but let’s do so in fair and accurate ways. Whether you agree with BLM or not, we haven’t even hit the general-election season and this nascent group seems the target of blame for lackluster turnout among its whole generation. In the least, let’s take a few months to size up its impact and reach when there’s better data, more interest, and better ways to review black-youth participation. Without that, we’re reinforcing tired tropes about black-youth apathy, anger, and angst without action. At least for this generation, that’s anything but the case.