Black youth plug in to politics

U. CHICAGO (US) — Stereotypes of black youth that they are politically detached and negatively influenced by rap music and videos are false, according to a new study.

The findings, based on survey questions and focus group discussions, suggest that black youth see themselves as politically involved, and they say they’re critical of many messages in rap.

They also are skeptical of the idea that the country has entered a post-racial era and tend to be socially conservative on political issues such same-sex marriage, says Cathy Cohen, lead researcher and a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

The study comes as attitudes among black youth are being examined in light of the election of President Barack Obama, which brought hope as well as disappointment for people who expected more change, Cohen says.

Black youth are among the most marginalized groups in society, Cohen adds. On average they have far fewer resources than other young people and face higher drop-out rates, especially among young black men in urban areas, as well as greater levels of incarceration and dangerous levels of violence.

Bad rap
Many of their cultural choices, such as rap music, have garnered criticism from those inside and outside of black communities.

The situation has led to the emergence of popular “partial truths” about black youth behavior, based in part on the images featured in some rap music videos, Cohen says, such as sagging pants, denigrating language toward women, and blatant sexuality.

Many people also feel that black youths are uninterested in politics. Those impressions distract from real problems, brought on by structural racism and a lack of opportunities resulting from conservative policies that focus on shrinking government assistance to those in need, Cohen says.

“In all fairness, black youth are also very honest in highlighting their own faulty decision-making, underscoring their own agency in shaping their life options.”

Cohen continues: “Ironically, missing from much of the debate over the lives of black youth and the political course of the country has been the sustained and detailed presentation of the voices, opinions, and attitudes of black youth,” says Cohen, who provides those perspectives in a new book, Democracy Remixed, Black Youth and the Future of American Politics.

Survey shows
The research for this work, widely known as the Black Youth Project, included a national representative survey of young people ages 15-25 that included an oversample of black youth. The survey was developed by Cohen’s research team of graduate and undergraduate researchers and was fielded by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in 2005.

The survey was followed by in-depth interviews and an online panel survey by Knowledge Networks, conducted in three waves between October 2008 and December 2009. Focus groups with black youth aged 18 to 24 also were held in 2004 and 2009. The research was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Among the findings:

  • When compared with other young people, black youth are most likely to be critical of rap music videos. The survey found that 41 percent felt that rap music videos should be more political, compared with 23 percent of whites and 33 percent of Latinos.
  • Black youth consistently hold the most conservative views on questions of premarital sex, homosexuality, and abortion.
  • Black youth are politically engaged, particularly on the Internet. They are described as a group of “digital Democrats” who are more eager to be involved when digital networks facilitate involvement.
  • Focus group conversations showed that many black youth accepted the limited potential of Obama’s election to change their lives. Obama had campaigned as a candidate for all groups and did not position himself as aiming especially to improve the lot of black Americans, Cohen points out.

    Hoping for change
    “This group of young people, although exuberant over the first African-American president, realize that they cannot count on him or any other politician to singly change their condition,” she says. In their conversations, the black youth repeatedly pointed to the need for community action, also part of Obama’s message, as the vehicle for change.

    That perspective from young black people on political participation can enhance the nation’s politics, Cohen says.

    “Black youth can help us to remix our democratic principles and practices, recognizing that full membership and the participation of all must be the basis for American politics in the 21st century.”

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