The Political Lives of Black Youth: An Interview with Cathy Cohen

I have mentioned here several times before my participation in a new research network on youth and participatory politics, which has been funded and organized by the MacArthur Foundation as an extension of their work on Digital Media and Learning. Part of the pleasures of participating in this network has been the chance to engage in “mixed methods” research and in the process, to learn more about research methods that previously seemed very alien to my own. In graduate school, the qualitative and quantitative students walked past each other like ghosts: we shared the same offices, in some cases, but there was not much fraternizing across enemy lines. :-) Here, I’ve had a chance to learn about and contribute to the design of a large scale national survey as well as having the ethnographic work my team is doing informed by thoughtful questions from the social scientists and political philosophers on the team.

I have especially loved getting to know Cathy Cohen, a political scientist who remains surprisingly open to our questioning of what counts as politics in the digital age and who is often leading the way to challenge the established wisdom in her field. Her previous books have included The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and The Breakdown of Black Politics and Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader. She has done extensive research on the political lives of black youth and what they can tell us about the current state of democracy in America, work which led this fall to the publication of a important new book, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics.

The information here is transformative. Cohen tells us for example that more black youth have participated in buycotts, that is directing their consumer purchases towards social change, than in boycotts, that archtypical tactic of the civil rights generation of black leadership. She describes how black youth have been stigmatized not only by white racists but by many black political leaders who often pathologize youth culture as symptomatic of the problems confronting the black community today. Her approach combines statistical and cultural analysis to offer a multilayered portrait of contemporary black youth, their hopes, their fears, their frustrations, their values, and their politics. As she notes, these perspectives are often left out or remain undifferentiated in larger accounts of youth and political participation.

The picture she paints will complicate further claims that the election of Barack Obama represent a “post-racial” era in American politics. As her comments below suggest, current politics are very much shaped by implicit and sometimes explicit assumptions about race at a time when the racial composition of the country is shifting dramatically.

I was lucky to get Cohen to respond to some of my questions about this book, which I strongly recommend to my readers. What follows is simply a glimpse into the rich analysis that runs through Democracy Remixed.

Walk me through your title. What do you mean by “Democracy Remixed”? Why is this an appropriate metaphor for the book’s findings?

I decided on the title of Democracy Remixed for a number of reasons. First, it seems to me that one of the interesting consequences of taking seriously the political ideas and actions of some of our most marginal citizens–black youth–is that it pushes, challenges, and changes the nature of how democracy currently functions in the United States. If it doesn’t then something is seriously wrong.

For example, if you begin to look at the participation rates of black youth, although there were historically high in 2008, there are still serious challenges to the full participation of black youth in our democracy. The issue of felony disenfranchisement and the general disproportionate impact of incarceration and policing in the lives of black youth are made visible when we focus on the political lives of black youth. Far too many young black people are unable to engage in the most basic of democratic practices–voting–because some states have taken away the franchise of those who have been convicted of a felony, even after they have served the terms of sentence. Thus, if we are serious about facilitating the participation of young black people in something as basic to democracy as voting, then we must examine and “remix” our ideas and laws about felony disenfranchisement.

Similarly, when we include black youth as full and equal members of our political community, it means that we acknowledge their worth and will debate and pursue politics that reflects their priorities and needs. For example, if young black people were active participants in our policy debates, the political agenda might be “remixed” to include specific policies and programs such as quality education for marginalized youth, especially young black people who suffer from dropout rates of nearly 50 percent in some urban cities.

As a country we might find ourselves designating more money to health programs accountable for erasing the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health problems among black youth. It might mean that we would do more to ensure that young people are not killed while playing outside their homes or on their way to or from school; a way of life for black children in Chicago and other major cities.

As equal members of our political community, the future of black youth must be recognized to be the future of the nation. Their suffering is our suffering. And their progress is our progress. Only by remixing our democratic ideals and practices can we truly become an inclusive and full-functioning democratic community.

You begin your book with the story of your nephew Terry. How did his experiences inspire and inform the project? What would you like to see Terry and others of his generation take away from the ideas in your book?

As you note in your question, it was the experiences of my nephew Terry and my other nieces and nephews that inspired this project. Terry, at least for me, represents many of the challenges of black youth today. He has faced and dealt with many of the issues that confront the lives of far too many young black people: violence, a failed educational system, incarceration, becoming a parent too early, and difficulty in finding a job just to name a few. While these are familiar themes that have been outlined in a number of books on black youth, what is different about Terry and hopefully my arguments in this book, is that we both try to provide a more nuanced representation of black youth than is regularly presented in other texts.

I believe that too often we are publish monolithic representations of black youth that either focus exclusively on their failure or their success. Bill Cosby is an example of one celebrity who has garnered a lot of media attention through the simplistic degradation of black people and black youth. I try in the book to detail the complex lives of black youth. As my nieces and nephews as well as thousands of young black people who answered surveys, took part in in-depth interviews and participated in focus groups for this book demonstrate, one has to pay attention to both the agency and structures that are a part of the story of black youth.

When I talk with Terry about the difficulties he has encountered, his is a balanced account, noting structural barriers such as the lack of jobs one can find with a criminal record, but also detailing how he has contributed to his own struggles by, for example, having children without being able to fully care for them, emotionally and materially. While Terry is willing to discuss the impact of being tracked at an early age into special education classes largely because the teachers in his school were unable or unwilling to deal with the learning challenges and energy of young black boys and girls, he also is quick to point out that he did not take advantage of the educational opportunities presented to him. It is the complicated story of being young and black in the United States today that I believe continues to deserve exploration and detail.

I hope the young people who read this book will first and foremost see themselves throughout this book. One of the things that was really amazing about doing the research for this project was the willingness of young black people to take time out of their schedules to talk to me and other researchers associated with the project. Repeatedly, they told us they were willing and eager to talk to us because people rarely asked them their opinions about the issues facing them and their ideas for solutions. So I hope those same young people are able to hear their voices in the ideas and arguments of the book.

Second, I hope the book reminds both young Blacks and the nation as a whole of the centrality of young black people to our democratic futures. Here I’m not only talking about the fact that black youth suffer disproportionately from some of the most important issues facing the country–unemployment, the decline of public education, violence, HIV/AIDS–but also they are a central part of what is promising about the next generation. In 2008 black and Latino youth came to the polls in record numbers to vote for the nation’s first black president. Their excitement, determination, and unprecedented turn out is a signal of the promise of an expanding democracy.

Third and finally, I greatly respect young black people for their political intellect, their determination, and their ability to honestly and openly state when they have made bad decisions. Like most of us, these are young people striving every day to do the right thing and be decent human beings. I hope this book affirms their efforts to work hard, to do what is right and their basic humanity.

I was very interested in the mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods shaping this study. What did each contribute to your understanding of the political lives of black youth?

I wanted to use a mixed methodological approach to the book to reach a level of breadth and depth in reporting on the political lives of young black people. Specifically, the research design started with a national representative sample of young people ages15-25 that included oversamples of black and Latino youth. By oversamples I mean including larger number of Blacks and Latinos than might be necessary to make a traditional random sample so that our statistical analysis of young Blacks and Latinos would be more reliable and thus the margin of error would be smaller. In addition to ensuring that the sample would allow us to highlight and analyze the ideas and actions of black youth in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups of young people, we also wanted to develop a survey that would focus on and be rooted in the lives of young black people.

Many of the surveys used to explore the attitudes of young people start with white youth as the normative respondent. What I mean by that is the survey is developed with a young white person in mind. We developed a survey that tried to tap into the lives of young blacks. Toward that end we did things like include questions on rap music and rap music videos since we know that as both a cultural and political form hip hop and specifically rap music is central to the lives of black youth. Much of the statistical data included in the book comes from two original data sets–the Black Youth Project–and another survey we mounted before and after the 2008 presidential election–the Mobilization and Change Project. All of the data from these projects are available to the public and can be downloaded through the websites mentioned above.

Once we had the data from our new survey instrument in hand, we knew that this data would only allow us to say general things about the population of young people from different ethnic and racial groups. It would not provide us with the depth of knowledge needed to write a book that would capture and detail the nuanced political lives of black youth. To gain greater knowledge and go deeper we utilized two methods to gather additional qualitative data. One strategy we used was to carry out interviews with about 40 black youth, most of whom had completed the national survey and lived in the Midwest. We targeted four cities–Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis and conducted interviews with black respondents in their city.

We were able to find respondents because at the end of the survey we included a question asking black respondents if they would be willing to be interviewed in the future. Over 90 percent of black youth answered affirmatively to the question, providing three contacts that might be able to find them within a year. Even with this information we were only able to find about 50 percent of the respondents who agreed to a future in-depth interview. After we confirmed the interview, graduate student researchers drove to their town and sat-down with respondents for over an hour, assessing in a more free flowing and detailed manner their thoughts on topics ranging from politics to the role of race in American society. Excerpts from these interviews are included as quotes throughout the book.

Finally, in 2005 and after the 2008 presidential election we held a series of focus groups with young black people in Chicago ages 18-21. We used the early focus groups in 2005 to inform the development of our first national survey and our general work on the Black Youth Project. The focus group held in 2009 was used to get a sense of what young people thought about the election of President Obama and how they thought the policies of the nation’s first African-American President would impact their lives. Again, I also use quotes from these focus groups throughout the book, especially in chapter six.

Cathy J. Cohen is the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science. . She is also the Deputy Provost for Graduate Education and the former Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. Cohen is the author of two books: Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (Oxford University Press 2010) and The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (University of Chicago Press 1999) and co-editor with Kathleen Jones and Joan Tronto of Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader (NYU, 1997). Cohen is principal investigator of two major projects: The Black Youth Project and the Mobilization, Change and Political and Civic Engagement Project. Her general field of specialization is American politics, although her research interests include African-American politics, women and politics, lesbian and gay politics, and social movements.

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