[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s a gross misunderstanding of what black politics and activism means in our country. We’re seeing some of that misunderstanding play out right now, as pundits rush to assess the role that black voters played in Hillary Clinton’s triumphant victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary – a contest where roughly 86 percent of black voters endorsed Clinton’s presidential aspirations.
Pressure from a new generation has moved things forward, even if there’s no agreement on the best vehicle for bringing about change.
Peeling back the layers of these numbers, however, reveals a level of complexity and nuance that’s worth exploring.
More than 90 percent of voters over the age of 65, for example, voted for Clinton.
Young black voters under the age of 30 also supported Clinton in high numbers – 56 percent. But what does it mean that 43 percent of young African-Americans supported Bernie Sanders?
One important takeaway is that there’s something generational at work here. In looking at this slice of the black electorate, as with other segments of Democratic voters, there’s a group of young black men and women for whom Bernie Sanders’s message of inequality resonated.
They were willing to excuse his clumsiness on matters of race because of his more radical assessment of American political power.
In some respects, this reflects those pockets of black activism that we witnessed in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary (think Rep. James Clyburn endorsing Hillary Clinton at the historically black Allen University, in a room full of black Bernie Sanders supporters).
Numbers, however, can only tell us so much. If we think that black support for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton tells us all we need to know about generational shifts, we run the risk of missing a black political movement that’s happening right in front of our faces.
In addition to Bernie Sanders’s young black supporters, there are also young people who shun two-party politics altogether, critical of a flawed system that all too often marginalizes black voices and needs.
There are also young black millennials who support Hillary Clinton, but whose reasons for doing so are often different from their older counterparts.
In fact, many imagine themselves as part of a broad, abstract Black Lives Matter movement, while also embracing a kind of pragmatic radicalism.
So while they recognize Clinton’s troubling role in mass incarceration, welfare reform and racial and economic inequality during her husband’s presidency, they believe that they can critique and influence her best from within a strong Democratic coalition.
Proponents of this approach often point to Secretary Clinton’s sudden use of the word “intersectionality” or her new interest in eliminating systemic racism, to make this point, but it’s worth noting that this turn of events came about as part of collective pressure from a younger generation of black radicals, activists and voters.
The idea of a monolithic black politics is a false one, as far removed from the historical reality of the modern civil rights movement and Black Power Movement as it is from the political reality of today’s black movements. And like those historical movements, it is clear that young people, in particular, understand the need for a radical reimagining of black political activism, while diverging on the best vehicle for creating that political change.
Originally posted in the NYTIMES