By: Dr. Basil A. Smikle Jr.
Within the first few months of 2020, African Americans have been the focus of much public discourse- first for their significant and sizeable influence in providing former Vice President Joe Biden an insurmountable lead in his race to meet incumbent Donald Trump in this year’s Presidential election. Then, as the coronavirus ravaged America, the distinct impact on the Black community trained our attention once again to differentiated access to health care and pervasive health disparities. In each circumstance, the connection between politics and governance comes into sharp focus, and civic engagement in all forms among African Americans will be significant in achieving more normative public policies and responsive, substantive leadership in the years to come.
Earlier this year, Representative Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) endorsement of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential cycle came as no surprise to political pundits but the outsized effect in shaping the presidential race astounded, nonetheless. Black voters in South Carolina changed the entire narrative of the race and thrust former Vice President into the lead. But subsequent debate about the role of black voters veered into statements suggesting these voters were “low information” and lacked substantial knowledge of issues to make good decisions. Such sentiments contribute to long-held belief that both political parties grossly undervalue African American political engagement while emphasizing the need for civic engagement that is multilayered and multigenerational.
The legacy of reductive thinking toward African Americans runs contrary to changes in post-Obama engagement that features a new cohort of black donors and entrepreneurs, particularly among black women, who provide financial, operational and political infrastructure for a new generation of public and private sector leaders.
Forward motion in some aspects of our lives have been overshadowed by the deadly effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to reports in early April, the virus decimated our communities: African Americans accounted for 70% of the deaths in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; in Louisiana, Michigan, and the City of Chicago, Blacks comprised at least 70% of the deaths attributed to the virus. Here in New York City, the virus was twice as lethal for blacks and Latinos than whites.
What’s more, the economic impacts paint a potentially stark future for Black New Yorkers who are concentrated among essential workers who are grossly overworked and underpaid.
All this puts a strain on public institutions already pushed to their limits and unready for the burden or unwilling to meet it. Worry abounds at a time when both data gathering for the decennial census and voting in this year’s elections are crucial. In an important move to ensure voter turnout and participation, Governor Andrew Cuomo relaxed mail-in voting rules but logistical and political challenges here and across the country may tamp down participation with deleterious effects.
Civic engagement appears more crucial now than in recent history and such responsibility is typically inculcated at home and in formal education settings. Sadly, many schools abandoned their civics curriculum years ago. Particularly concerning are results from the 2018 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), that found only 24% of eighth grade students performed at or above proficiency in civics. That number has increased by only 1 percentage point since 2014. Among black students, the percent at or above proficiency was 10% compared to white (31%), Hispanic (13%) and Asian/Pacific Islander (41%) students. Additional challenges like virus-related school closures and the temporary shut-down of summer youth employment programs, tend to impact poor and black students disproportionately and threatens even the modest gains made in the last few years.
Despite the hardships that lie ahead, most studies show that growing inequality that tends to tamp down adult civic participation, has the reverse effect among young people. They aspire to help others, volunteer and influence political outcomes. The New York Urban League is uniquely positioned to bridge generational and socioeconomic divides to unite New Yorkers in strengthening our public and private institutions, hold them more accountable and close gaps in opportunity, access and participation.
Dr. Basil A. Smikle Jr. is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and former Executive Director of the New York State Democratic Party