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.”