Demonstrators take to the streets of Ferguson. (105502)
Credit: Lawrence Bryant/St. Louis American

Selma to Ferguson, Compton to New York City, Baltimore to Montgomery. These cities served as the battleground for systematic change and social justice. I recognize that people in general, especially millennials, are a bit skeptical about government and politics. However, despite what your personal beliefs may be, not involving or educating yourself can be counterproductive to government accountability. Something to marinate on: If civic engagement in the form of voting wasn’t important, why would there be systematic efforts to deny the right to certain demographics?

The opportunities we are afforded today, the advancement of technology and the changing fabric of our society to a more diverse and equal one is something to be excited about. Could you imagine living in the 1960s? No cellphones, no Internet, no hashtags, no Instagram and no Facebook. Instead there was rampant racism and discrimination, and outright violence against minorities was a widespread practice. I know my last sentence might send some people into a full-on panic attack, but in all actuality, there are two things from the 1960s I wish we could have back, and that’s the effective nature of organizing and coordination of the “movement.”

In the 1960s, civic engagement participation was at its highest level, with young people at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is those young people, along with countless others, we have to thank for the many advances and opportunities afforded to Blacks and other marginalized populations in America. The efforts taken by young people in the 1960s were calculated, organized and primarily non-violent. They agitated, advocated and sometimes litigated.

Fast-forward to the year 2015, in the wake of non-convictions and non-indictments in the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, to name a few, once again Blacks have taken a leadership role in the fight for human rights. It is quite disturbing that more than 50 years later, our society is addressing similar inequalities and violations of human rights. The critical difference is the lack of coordinated movements and emphasis on civic participation. Today, we are also faced with a more sophisticated level of racism and institutionalism that has been more covert than overt disenfranchisement. The killings of unarmed Black bodies have sparked massive mobilization that has forced us to take a painful look at ourselves and our despicable history. 

In the ’50s and ’60s, courageous acts such as students practicing civil disobedience as a means to fight segregation, exerting political clout by registering people to vote in order to elevate their voices and strategically protesting and marching made breaking news headlines. I often think of these times nostalgically, but there’s nothing nostalgic about the recent events at the University of Missouri, there’s nothing nostalgic about the happenings at Yale University, Arizona State, University of Michigan, UCLA and countless other institutions.

In contrast, young people during the Civil Rights Movement recognized the need for multi-resistance and liberation efforts as well as the importance of political clout. Youth in the ’50s and ’60s didn’t have Instagram or Twitter and couldn’t create catchy hashtags such as “#blacklivesmatter,” “#sayhername” and “#concernedstudent1950.” Today, social media has served as the core catalyst in raising awareness of the bigotry that still plagues our country. During the civil rights era, however, their efforts were focused on both tangible and sustainable change.

Political awareness and acumen was one of the driving forces of the Civil Rights Movement’s successes. After the voting rights act of 1964, Black voter turnout reached historic numbers, with over 60 percent of the population participating. The political power of Blacks was certainly felt. However, since that time, voter turnout has increased but still remains statistically low.

Black voter turnout has not seen those historic numbers from the 1964 presidential election until President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. If we had continued on the aggressive path of yielding political power without the 44-year gap that has occurred, would Blacks feel as though their lives didn’t matter in this country today? Many people argue that without the Black vote, Obama would not have been in office for these last two terms. This argument is in fact quite relevant given the new numbers of voters that have turned out.

As Obama finishes up his final term and as we prepare ourselves to usher in a new presidential administration, I am concerned about Blacks and specifically Black youth continuing to invoke their political power. Recently, leaders of Black Lives Matter made the decision not to endorse any candidates for this upcoming presidential election, which sent shockwaves, and also attracted much criticism. The reasoning behind the non-endorsement display the sophistication of the movement, and politically speaking, endorsements can quickly become co-opted and taken for granted. Nonetheless, I still remain a bit concerned about the message this might send to other young activists and how this ultimately effects our political power. 

I am truly inspired by recent Black Lives Matter movements, and I too have joined protestors and marched the streets on multiple occasions to demand justice. I am a huge fan of disturbing the peace; it is a swift measure that invokes immediate responses from our elected and appointed officials who are the key decision makers of our society.

In addition to all the protesting and acts of civil disobedience, I would like to see more work on the political and civic engagement side. Increasing voter turnout, getting involved in political campaigns and even running for offices is critical. Without substantial political power, the social justice issues we are challenging fall too easily on deaf ears. Much progress has been made in America since the Civil Rights Movement, but our country is still stifled by structural racism, poverty and violence. 

Numerous polls indicate current distrust of government that spreads across every demographic, but is even greater within the Black and Brown community. Can you blame the Black millennial community for distrusting a society that has alienated them in every aspect of life? This distrust has only led to people disengaging from the system, which is extremely counterproductive. The lack of political and civic involvement is exacerbated in Black and Brown communities. This problem is pervasive, and until we are able to both raise our political power and make it permanent, we are bound to face similar issues again and again.

The technological sophistication of campaigns and subsequent elections allows officials and candidates to extrapolate data. This data is then used to shape initiatives and messaging that micro-target voters. With the emergence of data mining, minorities and those that who least likely to vote are potentially in an even more dangerous position. Political power in the form of votes and elections is more quantifiable, and thus data mining has the possibility to further exclude certain demographics. Ironically, in the instance of politics, Black and Brown people must become a statistic, and a large one at that, to ensure our issues are properly addressed.

Disengaging from a system that is marginalizing you only exasperates the disparity. Government reacts primarily off who is engaging with them most actively. When people fail to get involved in political and civic activities for whatever reasons, government becomes blind to their issues, which results in a continuous cycle of government ineffectiveness.

Engage with the system, but “stay woke” and remain aware of the possibility of co-optation. Joining or volunteering with a local civic or social justice organization, and/or attending your local community board meeting is critical. Attend a local rally or at the very least take a few minutes to read up on local and national candidates before you exercise your right to vote when that time comes. Most people only vote during presidential elections, but your vote is more significant during local and state elections. To end systematic injustices once and for all, we must civically engage. This simple thing is a sure way for us to collectively increase our political power and will.