A Call to Black Youth
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In my intro to women's studies course at Spelman College, our class watched a video detailing the work of Ella Baker in the civil rights movement. It captured the tenacity and clout she had when working with many groups and leaders including SNCC and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film was so powerful it provoked an outburst from a student wondering if the situation surrounding minorities is hopeless. She said that Ella had done so much, and yet black people are still discriminated against in this country. She seemed resigned to the status of black people as second class citizens. Another student joined her and expressed she didn't even see the point in voting because the candidates said little to address the issues faced in her community. It was disheartening to hear the concession of defeat in their voices for a battle they had not even fought.
Apathy among black youth is widespread. Negative images dominate the media and airwaves with portrayals of blacks as drug addicts, dealers, hyper-sexual beings at worst and achievers of a sliver of the American dream that hangs in the balance from paycheck to paycheck, game to game, or album to album, at best. In a society that is both racist and patriarchal, feeling a sense of agency is almost impossible if you aren't in the dominant groups in society. We are buying into negative images of ourselves and with drugs in our communities, hoop dreams, and other diversions keeping us from focusing on the way our rights are being chipped away.
The reality is the circumstances are not as bleak as they appear. There are significant numbers of black youth working to better their communities across the country, but these are not the images we see on TV. The solutions and those working on them do not seem to be as interesting as the problems.
The black community is faced with serious issues. 10.4 percent of the country's entire black male population between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison (1), and discriminatory judicial practices stemming from the government's war on drugs are to blame (2). In addition, racial profiling and other tactics scrutinize black people more than other groups. The disenfranchisement of felons has a very real effect on the strength of the black vote. 1.4 million, or 13% of all black men are unable to vote despite having completed sentences, but their right to vote is not restored because they have been convicted of a felony (3).
AIDS is affecting the black community at a rate unparalleled by any other group. Black women ages 18-24 are leading the pack in new cases of HIV (4). And while more black students are going to college (5), education has not been the cure-all our parents hoped it would be. Educated black people have less access to adequate medical care and have higher mortality rates than their white counterparts (6).
Voting is not a cure-all, but it's a step in the right direction for alleviating these conditions. Politicians work for active responsive constituencies to create policies to serve these groups. More cynically put, when you vote for people they do stuff for you so you'll vote for them again. Constituents influence the actions a politician takes when in office, and a strong black voting base translates into actions that can improve health care, imprisonment, and education in our communities.
Like the black youth of the 1960s who fueled the Civil Rights Movement that led to the enfranchisement of black people at the polls, we are in a position to be a catalyst for change. In 2000, 51 percent of the black population came out to vote in the presidential election (7). What happened to the other 49 percent? We should be working to get 100 percent of our communities to vote. We have the capacity to set a new precedent where our voices are heard.
But how are we to know about this? Our parents are just trying to get by and black leadership is pandering for the attention of both parties in the election. What about the issues of our generation? Who will address our concerns about the communities we will one day inherit? These aren't the issues of our parent's generation and the fact that we are young seems to be an excuse to dismiss them as valid.
For example, in a recent visit to Spelman College, a historically black college, Reverend Al Sharpton tried to comment on hip-hop music. He only commented on the negativity in the music and used NWA as an outdated and not applicable reference of the problematic nature of the music.
However, as much as the generations above us don't understand our music or concerns, we can never forget the sacrifices they made. Voting should not even be a question for our generation. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents were strung up from trees, burned alive, sprayed with high pressured hoses, attacked by dogs, spit on, shot, assaulted, and raped all in the name of our rights. It is inconceivable to dishonor their memories by not being active participants in the political process in this country. If we owe them nothing else we owe them the votes that they were unable to cast.
We are in a unique position. As a supposedly disenfranchised group we can slip into the polls undetected and really change the political system! How hot would it be if we descended silently but in mass to the polls? We could really elect someone who could be a voice for our generation, someone willing to ensure the rights and change the discriminatory practices already in existence.
Being young and black in a racist and patriarchal country can be depressing. It is so easy to believe what you're told, that your voice doesn't count and that you'll be lucky to get into college and later pay a mortgage for the rest of your life. It often feels like a dire and utterly hopeless situation, but trying to do something about it is how change will come.
In New York City there is a group called the United Homeless Organization. They stand on the sidewalks of the city all day asking for pennies from passersby. It doesn't seem like much, but a penny from everyone in New York would add up to over 150,000 dollars! That's the reality of voting. If everyone voted change could come. The kind of change we want to see in this country could be realized -- we just have to make it real.
The black youth vote is not something that the candidates are seeking. We can slip under their noses and really change the course of history with our vote! Black youth of the world unite! This is a call to arms that needs to be answered!
Moya Bailey is a Comparative Women's Studies/Pre-Med major at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.