African American Youth: Broadening our Understanding of Politics, Civic Engagement and Activism
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Cathy Cohen is a Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago. She is the author of the book The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics and the co-editor of the anthology Women Transforming Politics. Cohen is currently at work on a project exploring the politics, culture and sexual decision-making of African American youth funded by the Ford Foundation.

Arguably more than any other subgroup of Americans, African American youth reflect the challenges of inclusion and empowerment in the post-civil rights period. When one looks at a wide array of some of the most controversial and important issues challenging the country, African American young people are often at the center of these debates and policies. Whether the issue is the mass incarceration of African Americans, the controversy surrounding Affirmative Action as a policy to redress past discrimination, the increased use of high stakes testing to regulate standards of education, debates over appropriate and effective campaigns for HIV and AIDS testing and prevention programs, or efforts to limit comprehensive sex education in public schools, most of these initiatives and controversies are focused on, structured around, and disproportionately impact young, often marginally positioned African Americans.

In contrast to the centrality of African American youth to the politics and policies of the country, their perspectives and voices have generally been absent from not only public policy debates, but also academic research. As the presence of African American youth as policy targets or perceived threat in the public mind has increased, researchers actually have less systematic information on the political ideas and actions of this group than we did 30 years ago. Increasingly, researchers and policy-makers have been content to detail and measure the behavior and negative outcomes of young African Americans with little concern for measuring and analyzing their attitudes, ideas, wants, desires and politics. As researchers, it is time to recommit ourselves to understanding and exploring the politics, activism and political attitudes of African American youth in all of their complexity.

While researchers and policy-makers may be paying less attention to the ideas and politics of African American youth, these young people continue to engage in both traditional and extra-systemic politics. The history of black youth activism personifies struggles among those disenfranchised to force the country to live up to its promise of equality and justice. Clearly, the work of young African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement is what most people reference when thinking about black youth activism; nearly all the leaders of this historic movement where young people under the age of 30. African American young people lead boycotts, freedom rides, voter registration drives and rallies across the south. African American high school students sacrificed their safety and often disobeyed their parent’s wishes as they engaged in civil disobedience, filling the jails with their young bodies. But no matter how important young African Americans proved to be to the Civil Rights Movement, they have been equally active and instrumental in other movements and politics. Whether it is the Black Power movement, the Anti-apartheid movement, or the organized mobilization against mass incarceration, African American youth have been and continue to be at the center of these efforts, providing leadership, analysis, and energy.

Their increased activity has also been witnessed in more traditional forms of participation, specifically voting. A recent report by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) commented on the increase in voting among African American youth. Mark Hugo Lopez wrote that

[i]n "2004, youth voter turnout increased substantially and much of this increase was driven by an increase in voting among African-American youth. African-American turnout fell off in the 1988 election and remained relatively stable until the 2004 election, in which African- Americans experienced a jump in turnout of more than 11 percentage points over 2000—the greatest increase in turnout of any racial or ethnic minority group during the recent election cycle."1

The story, however, does not end there with increasing electoral participation. For we also know, as Sherrod reminds us, that African American youth are also less likely to “engage in extracurricular activities, community service, and other group involvement that relate to the development of civic engagement.”2 As researchers, we must recognize the value of understanding the politics of African American youth because their lives pose critical questions for the future functioning of our democracy and for the discipline of political science specifically. For if we are to measure the country’s commitment to and success in reaching the principles of democratic inclusion, justice and equality, made visible during the civil rights movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s, then we must understand and attend to the ideas, attitudes and needs of this post-civil rights generation. While young African Americans never lived under Jim Crow nor experienced the harshest realities of systematic economic, political and social exclusion, they represent the generation of African Americans expected to benefit most from the country’s attempts at political, social and economic transformation. Understanding how young people from communities that have been marginalized based on race, ethnicity, and class as well as other sources of stratification think about the political world, their status in it and how they choose to act in the current political environment is essential if we are to facilitate the inclusion and empowerment of these often vulnerable and alienated voices.

Limitations of Existing Knowledge

While there exists interesting and insightful research on African American youth and their political attitudes and behaviors, research in this area needs added attention if we are to develop not only informed and effective policy that will enhance the life chances of this population, but also new and insightful theories of the processes involved in political development among adolescents and young adults (Flanagan and Sherrod 1998). Specifically, while innovative and important work on youth political development, civic knowledge and activism has begun to reappear, especially in psychology, other disciplines such as political science continue to be resistant to devoting significant attention to this critical subject (Torney-Purta 1995; Sears 1990). Let me briefly outline four current research problem areas in the realm of African American youth activism and politics. First, systematic data on the politics of young African Americans is surprisingly thin and fraught with analytic and methodological problems.

During the 1970s, scholars such as Greenberg (1970), Abramson (1972), Clarke (1973), and Liebscutz and Niemi (1974) relied on small data sets generated from paper and pencil surveys in a limited number of schools and community programs to explore the political attitudes of black youth. Working under the rubric of political socialization, most of these studies focused on issues of trust and efficacy and did not explore the political positions of these young people on specific political and public policy issues of the time. Even given the problems associated with these research designs, scholars identified interesting findings suggesting that African American youth had lower levels of trust in the government, while their political efficacy varied depending on such factors as age and class. Unfortunately, instead of building on the insights learned from such studies and generating data from broader and more reliable research strategies, social science research in this area has been severely neglected since the 1980s.

In the 1990s, we witnessed renewed interest in the civic knowledge and activities of young people in part spurred by Putnam’s pronouncements of the drastic decline in social capital. While those of us concerned with young black youth must be alarmed and attend to findings like those highlighted by Hart and Atkins (2002) that “throughout childhood and adolescence, Black and Hispanic youth are more than twice as likely as White children to lack basic proficiency in civics,” we must also interrogate the questions being asked of respondents. Do they reflect a broad conceptualization of what constitutes civic knowledge and civic engagement especially as it is practiced among young African Americans?3 For example, as Sanchez-Jankowski’s contends, groups that have experienced racial exclusion will focus their civic engagement on helping their own group, and thus their “knowledge about civic engagement is centered on their group’s interest,” and not broadly. In fact, he suggests a history of racial exclusion might lead group members to believe “that individuals should be engaged in activities that aid in the economic and political advancement of their specific group; and engaging in activities that help the larger society is a sign that the individual is abdicating his or her responsibilities to their group. This inward focus might also result in members of racially excluded groups, such as African American youth, scoring lower on traditional and outwardly focused measures of civic knowledge even though they have a demonstrated commitment to group-based civic participation.”4 Similarly, while researchers are aware of some of the major determinants of youth civic knowledge and engagement—parents, schools, neighborhood organizations—as Hart and Atkins note, “there is little work to date that permits an assessment of the relative importance of these influences on the development of civic competence.”5 A more comprehensive approach to identifying and measuring the factors that influence civic knowledge and activity among all youth as well as how such factors vary in importance across racial and ethnic groups such as African American young people is needed.

Second, research on the politics of young people, including African American youth, has too often explored this topic only as a way to predict adult political behavior. Scholars have often ignored young people as political agents before they are legally eligible to engage in traditional forms of political participation such as voting. In the early 1980s, research on the political socialization of young people came under increasing scrutiny for its lack of significance in predicting the political behavior of adult participants. Relying primarily on cross-sectional data, it became clear that researchers could not conclusively link the political attitudes and behavior of young people directly to those observed in their adult lives. Scholars could not say that the politics of one’s youth had any direct or significant bearing on the politics of one’s adult years, when active and influential political engagement was thought to be most meaningful. Thus, without a direct causative link between the politics of young people and the political actions of adults, the study of young people was perceived to be unimportant.

The truth, of course, is that young people today, in particular marginal and racialized youth such as many African American young people, find themselves at the center of many national political struggles and are, therefore, politicized at a much earlier age than more privileged youth. Increased access to information through the internet, television, and popular culture, as well as the constant presence of the state in the lives of vulnerable populations means that the age of significant political engagement with the state and other political entities, if not formal political citizenship, is spiraling downward. It is time, therefore, to once again engage the question of politics among young people, not with an eye toward how such attitudes will influence their behavior when they are adults, but instead with a determination to understand how young people interact with and influence the political environment and the public sphere, working through broad conceptions of “the political.”

While African American youth younger than 18 may not be old enough to vote, they are forming opinions about themselves, their communities, and their government that have important consequences for the study of American politics and more practically for their and our political future. For example, African American young people have been shown to be less likely to believe that voting is a right compared to white young people. African American youth are also less efficacious, less likely than their white counterparts to talk about politics and less likely to trust in government (Lopez 2002). Moreover, many African American youth engage with the state on a regular basis through state run health care policies such as Medicaid, through their own experiences or their children’s experience in the public schools, through the payment of taxes, and through encounters with the police. Thus, researchers are sorely mistaken if we proceed as if young people, who are often the targets of institutional and state campaigns, programs and policies, do not have strong opinions about and take action to better their position in society, their life chances, and the distribution of power in their communities and the country. We must expand our notion of what counts as politics, paying attention to the multiple and sometimes new ways that young African Americans engage in politics and participate politically.

Third, as the study of politics among young people has begun to recover in terms of research attention and funding, most of this work confines the political to very narrow, traditional and recognizable acts such as voting. Even those surveys designed to ask more politicized questions of young people—including samples structured to produce over-samples of African American and Latino youth—too often restrict their investigation to a fairly narrow group of actions represented as constituting the politics of young people. Such surveys often explore the politics of young people largely by presenting respondents with a number of questions probing voting behavior, the characteristics respondents look for in a political candidate, and patterns of basic civic activity measured most often as multiple forms of volunteering. On some surveys, respondents are asked a few questions about their level of concern for such as issues as the environment, discrimination, poverty and health care. Unfortunately, such questions are rare and are framed as general questions of assessment, not statements of the respondent’s personal experiences. In the end, we are left with interesting but limited data on standard measures of political participation and civic engagement, even when those measures do not begin to address the political reality faced by African American youth and young adults.

We must, therefore, expand our understanding of when and where politics happens, pursuing the larger question of what is political and what counts as politics for young African Americans. For example, there has been a continuous debate in the hip hop community, among journalists and a few researchers, about hip hop as a cultural vehicle of politics for African American youth. In a series of focus groups I held with African Americans ages 18-21 in Chicago in 2004, there was general agreement among participants that hip hop culture was especially influential in the lives of younger African Americans and had the potential to be a significant political force. One participant proclaimed, “If just half the folks who listen to rap music could come together, this government wouldn’t know what hit them." Another explained, “Hip hop is where we can talk to each other about all the things done wrong to us.” Ironically, in the realm of politics, traditional researchers have been the last to take the political influence of hip hop seriously, focusing their work instead on traditional measures of politics, and the questions of whether young people vote and if they are engaged in standard forms of civic activity. And while I, as a political scientist, am interested in young African Americans and their engagement in traditional forms of participation (including voting), I am also interested in the evolving notion of hip hop as not only a cultural form, but also a significant mode of political expression.

In the last presidential election, the presence of the hip hop community was visible. Whether it was P. Diddy’s “Citizen Change Campaign” that used the slogan “vote or die,” or Russell Simmon’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network, or even Eminem’s release of “Mosh” just weeks before the 2004 presidential election, all these factors could be hypothesized to influence the politics and activism of African American youth in ways that the Democrats and Republicans never approached. Moreover, beyond the electoral sphere, hip hop artists and cultural workers are to be found among those public celebrities and activists willing to lend their names and energy to issues such as AIDS, debt relief for Africa, and opposition to the prison industrial complex. Finally, the use of hip-hop across the world as a cultural form of rebellion is evident in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, and South Africa. Thus, as researchers, we would be negligent if we did not fully explore the connections being made by young African Americans between hip hop culture and politics. For example, does this group understand hip hop to be an alternative mode of political action, making visible their political, social and economic condition? To what degree do the themes evident in hip hop culture shape or influence the political thoughts and actions of African American youth? Empirically, does listening to certain forms of hip hop lessen or increase the probability that individuals will engage in politics, develop oppositional political attitudes, or feel greater alienation from the political system?

Fourth, the continuing and disproportionate social, political and economic marginalization of African American youth is a fact that is difficult to dispute and must be fully incorporated into our research on the political activism and civic engagement of this population. Without serious investigation into how living with constrained opportunities, fewer resources and systematic racism impacts political behaviors as well as consciousness, we will never completely comprehend nor address the politics of African American youth. Sanchez-Jankowski (2002) makes a similar point, writing, “What has been absent from these analyses of civic participation is an investigation of the impact of groups on the individual’s perception of, and participation in, civic activities.”6 He continues, pointing out that, “[a] person’s socioeconomic position and their ethnic group’s history in America influences the type and intensity of their civic involvement.”7 Thus, research on the political activism and civic engagement of African American youth should begin with a clear understanding and delineation of their lived experience, especially their views of a regulatory state that often takes them as its target.

So, for example, in terms of lived experiences, we know that while approximately 10 percent of non-Hispanic white children lived in poverty in 2001, the poverty rate for African American children was 30 percent.8 Similarly, data from the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that while 3 of 1,000 white Americans ages 18-19 are sentenced prisoners,9 29 of 1,000 African Americans ages 18-19 are sentenced prisoners. African American males ages 14-24 in 2000 constituted 1 percent of the general population; however, they comprised nearly 15 percent of all victims of homicide and over a quarter—27 percent—of homicide offenders.10 And while African American youth comprise only 16 percent of the adolescent population in the U.S., they accounted for nearly 50 percent of adolescents arrested for murder, 42 percent of those arrested for violent crimes,11 and approximately 40 percent of young people in public and private juvenile detention facilities.12 Moreover, African American youth comprised 51 percent of all AIDS cases among young people ages 13-19 from 1981 to 2001 and 61 percent of new AIDS cases in the same age range in 2001, even though they represented only 16 percent of all young people ages 13-19.13 Unfortunately, education and employment statistics do not provide a more optimistic picture. In 2000, nearly 30 percent of African American young people ages 18-24 had not completed high school compared to 18 percent of white youth.14 In August of 2003, 30 percent of African American youth ages 16-19 were unemployed compared to only 15 percent of white youth in the same age range.15

It is this stark reality of poverty, imprisonment, disease and other life threatening conditions that dictates that we conceptualize politics, civic engagement and the factors shaping the politics and activism of young African Americans differently or at least broadly, destabilizing ideas about what constitutes normal civic engagement and activism. For example, Cornel West in Race Matters suggests that nihilism must be a concept that researchers concerned with African American youth make central to their analyses. West argues that we must tread “into the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America. To talk about the depressing statistics of unemployment, infant mortality, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and violent crime is one thing. But to face up to the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning, the incredible disregard for human (especially black) life and property in much of black America is something else.”16

Given this reality, it is not surprising that young African Americans are developing strategies of survival that dictate, at times, a less visible politics both to authorities and researchers. Again, data from focus groups I conducted in 2004 with African American young adults, ages 18-21 in Chicago suggest that these young people are engaged in a political strategy of survival that I call a “politics of invisibility.” Some of the participants, especially those most vulnerably positioned, indicated that they engage in a strategy of invisibility, making themselves invisible to authority figures like the police, teachers, and correction officers that they believe are out to “get them.” Of course, one of the most troubling parts of this revelation is that a strategy of invisibility is largely a politically disempowering strategy, for if one is invisible to government authorities, then your needs and concerns are unlikely to be heard. Furthermore, through a politics of invisibility, young people lose any power to hold entities accountable. In a democracy based on visibility and voice, attempts to make one’s self invisible have the unintended consequence of silencing discontent. It obscures their lived reality from the public, and in particular, those responsible for responding to such difficulties.

So while I applaud the efforts of researchers to provide basic data on the political attitudes, behavior and civic engagement of African American youth, it is time that we move beyond traditional frameworks of both civic engagement and electoral participation to build an expanded framework for understanding, studying and supporting the politics and activism of young people, especially African American young people. This new opportunity has informed my own work on African American young people. Specifically, in an attempt to understand the evolving politics of young people, I have included some new and old questions about political participation in a new national survey of young people aged 15-25 that I am mounting. Like previous surveys, I ask respondents a series of questions about traditional forms of political engagement such as voting, working for a campaign or talking to friends and family about politics. However, learning from surveys mounted by organizations like CIRCLE, other questions on the survey attempt to measure to what degree young people are engaging in new forms of politics such as blogging and buycotting or making purchases because one agrees with the politics and social values of the company producing the good. I have also included an open-ended question that asks respondents to list any other ways in which they have engaged in politics that I did not previously mention. The general goal of this question is to allow respondents to tell me what they consider political. With such information, I can begin to map the political landscape of adolescents and young adults.

Whether we measure it or not, young people are using old and new ways to not only survive politically, but re-create and improve upon their lived existence. Sometimes these forms are easily recognized, such as when they register to vote and show up at the polls. Other times their politics may be less visible, but no less profound—raising consciousness and disseminating oppositional ideologies through cultural vehicles. Our renewed interest in African American youth activism and civic engagement provides researchers with an opportunity to once again re-conceptualize what constitutes politics and the role of the personal in the political—a lesson feminist scholars tried to teach us all years ago. It is also a chance once again to make visible the daily political struggles of a marginalized community—this time, African American young people.


1 Lopez, Mark Hugo. July 2005. “Electoral Engagement among Minority Youth,” Fact Sheet of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

2 Sherrod, Lonnie R. April 2003. “Promoting the Development of Citizenship in Diverse Youth,” PSOnline:, p. 287.

3 Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins. 2002. “Civic Competence in Urban Youth,” Applied Developmental Science, vol. 6 (4), 229.

4 Sanchez-Jankowski, Martin. 2002. “Minority Youth and Civic Engagement: The Impact of Group Relations,” Applied Developmental Science, vol. 6 (4), 240.

5 Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins. 2002. “Civic Competence in Urban Youth,” Applied Developmental Science, vol. 6 (4), 229.

6 Sanchez-Jankowski, Martin. 2002. “Minority Youth and Civic Engagement: The Impact of Group Relations,” Applied Developmental Science, vol. 6 (4), 237.

7 Ibid, p. 243.

8 Proctor, Bernadette D. and Joseph Dalaker, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-219, Poverty in the United States: 2001, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2002.

9 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2001, Bulletin NCJ 195189 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, July 2002), p. 12, Table 16.

10 Fox, James Alan and Marianne W. Zawitz, “Homicide Trends in the United States,” available online at

11 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2001, Table 4.10, p. 356-358.

12 Melissa Sickmund and Yi-chun Wan, “Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Databook” [Online]. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2002).

13 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HIV/AIDS Surveillance in Adolescents—L265 Slide Series (through 2001).”

14 U.S. Census Bureau, Report P20-536 (2000).

15 United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, News Release, USDL 04-07.

16 Cornel West. 1993. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 12.