THE Democrats need young black voters. But the political party of our parents doesn’t seem to know how to reach us — the black millennials they can’t afford to lose — this time around.
Activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprang up in the aftermath of protests over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have been challenging the Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over the past few months through direct action and protests at their campaign events. So far, the candidates have responded reluctantly to the prodding, and in ways that show they underestimate the number of voters behind the movement.
In 2008, roughly 11 percent of the electorate were first-time voters. Over 20 percent of these “surge voters” were black, and 70 percent were under 30 years old. And in 2012, according to the Cook Political Report, black voters accounted for the president’s margin of victory in seven key states: Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Black youth turnout increased a full eight percentage points between 2004 and 2008, with more than half of eligible young black voters casting ballots in the 2008 election. In contrast, white youth turnout was relatively flat for the same period. In addition, blacks 18 to 44 years old made up 48 percent of the black voters who turned out in 2012.
The Democratic Party isn’t really at risk of losing these voters to the other party. But it can’t take them for granted. A Washington Post analysis found that if black support for Democrats drops from the highs of President Obama’s 93 and 95 percent showings back to the historical average of 85 percent, it could cost Democrats a net of 2.8 million votes.
Instead of really engaging black millennials where we are, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are relying on stale outreach strategies. They’re visiting historic black churches, making public appearances with civil-rights-era black leaders and failing to engage in real substantive debate on potential policy solutions to issues of racial injustice.
Recently, Mrs. Clinton marked the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott with an appearance at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. In a November interview with NPR, Mr. Sanders, lamenting his weak support among blacks, again touted his record on civil rights legislation and his economic platform as a way of addressing racial inequality. And when the Clinton campaign rolled out its “African-Americans for Hillary” group, it did so with an Atlanta luncheon for black ministers, including Jesse Jackson, followed by a rally.
Students from #AUCShutItDown, a Black Lives Matter affiliate group operating throughout Atlanta’s historically black colleges, disrupted the rally with chants of “black lives matter.” In a statement regarding the protest, the group wrote critically of Mrs. Clinton’s lack of direct action and engagement: “Unfortunately, rhetoric DOES NOT save us, nor does it give confidence to black voters that we can trust Hillary to prioritize the necessity of ensuring our safety.”
Black millennials are unlike any other generation of black voters the Democratic Party has had to court. Born roughly two decades after the biggest wins of the civil rights movement, we’ve experienced both its benefits and failures. We grew up in neighborhoods and matriculated at schools that were resegregated. And while many of us participated in the election of the nation’s first black president, we’ve witnessed what feels like his inability to adequately serve black Americans in the face of continued economic challenges and systematic police brutality. As a result, we are not satisfied with the Democratic Party’s mere acknowledgment of our issues, nor are we charmed by their willingness to appear in black churches.
Like all other constituents, we need to be targeted and convinced. So far, the candidates have spent far too little time debating the policies that shape racial justice. At the top of 2016 they have a chance, with a debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in which they should focus less on movements of the past and more on the one in front of them.
To be fair, the leading Democratic presidential campaigns seem to be learning from the Black Lives Matter movement. Between June and the first Democratic debate in October, Mrs. Clinton evolved from saying “all lives matter” at a black church outside of Ferguson to meeting privately with Black Lives Matter groups and elevating criminal justice reform in her platform.
Mr. Sanders has arguably shown the most growth. Since being confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters at the Netroots Nation conference in July, he has met privately with activists and published a racial justice agenda that addresses issues of economic, legal, political and physical violence against people of color.
Still, these acknowledgments of the Black Lives Matter movement do not rise to such a level that they can be considered outreach to black millennials or a substantive engagement with our issues.
Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon who introduced Mrs. Clinton at her “African-Americans for Hillary” event, spoke about the protests to reporters afterward. When asked about the seeming dissonance between his presence at the event and that of the millennial protesters, Mr. Lewis said, “I think they represent another time, another period.”
Indeed, the period that black millennials represent is the current one. While many of us have reverence for the political gains made by those who came before us, we are not bound by their politics or approach to civic engagement. So, if the leading Democratic candidates want the support of this increasingly influential segment of the electorate, they’ll have to forgo their usual youth and black outreach tactics for ones that take seriously the intersection of those identities. Otherwise there’s a risk that black millennials will stay home in the first post-Obama presidential election.