As the 2012 presidential election ramps up, expect conservatives to keep gunning for black youth, in general, and hip-hop, specifically. Black youth showed significant gains in 2008, and now represent the group of 18- to 29-year-old who vote the most. Their ability via popular to inspire young voters -- who in 2008 voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a ratio of 2-to-1 -- poses one of the most viable threats to Republicans' aspirations to retake the Ppesidency. The recent national discussion surrounding the rapper Common's appearance at the White House is perhaps the first salvo.
What was quickly summed up as either an attempt to defend law enforcement or as an attack on the value of the arts does not get to the heart of what conservatives were really communicating to voters in the Common dust-up. That is, is there a place in mainstream American political life for young blacks, whose political views don't always fall within traditional mainstream conservative/liberal lines?
Black youth, particularly those who are poor and often ignored by politicians and lawmakers, are the men and women that the rapper-actor Common gave voice to in his 2007 poem ("A Letter to the Law") highlighted throughout the controversy. Conservative critics take issue with Common's tendency in the poem to represent their issues. Further, they feign outrage at the fact that Common presumes innocent several high profile Black Panthers convicted of police killings -- Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jama l-- notwithstanding Common's suspicion is shared by international supporters, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
So much of conservative media maneuvering since the 2008 election has been about creating illusions. This focus on Common is no different. In fact, the point of highlighting these associations is to encourage the casual observer to infer that like-minded Black youth are equally un-American and should not be welcome at the White House. Hence, the suggestion goes, it is not only logical, but also patriotic to dismiss their issues.
Such reasoning fails to consider that many of these young Americans embrace their citizenship with as much passion as conservative Republicans advance their own interpretation of what the founding fathers envisioned for the nation. Rightly so. Many have fought in American wars of the last decade, as African-Americans in the military outdistance their representation in the general population. Many were forced outside of the mainstream economy years before the Great Recession of 2007-2009. By 2009, for example, unemployment for black 16- to 24-year-olds reached Depression-era levels.
Many others, with hip-hop as the unifying theme, vote and engage in grassroots community change efforts in neighborhoods abandoned long ago by government job programs and major corporations. They belong to national, multi-racial organizations like The Hip-Hop Caucus, the League of Young Voters, Green For All or similar local organizations. They also, like their fellow citizens, believe their issues should take center stage on the nation's agenda -- that they should be no more or less important than America's super rich, its senior citizens, its fed up Tea Partiers or its mega corporations.
Unfortunately, as the nation gears up for election 2012, they are among those that conservative spin brings to mind with phrases like "take back America." For self-appointed defenders of American values (who these days take their cues from House Speaker John Boehner, presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann and talking heads like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, to name a few), hearing the voices of fellow citizens at a White House poetry reading signals not the diversity of the nation, but, rather, a country that has lost its way.
As a hip-hop advocate and critic who has shared the stage with Common, I can unequivocally vouch for the value he adds to the nation. He's both a thoughtful lyricist and a hip-hop star committed to using his celebrity to improve the lives of forgotten Americans. He does not routinely traffic in misogyny or gratuitous violence. Yes, there are those rare moments where he could go further to distance himself from hip-hop's gender stereotypes. However, to focus on Common's lyrics is to miss the point.
And missing the point in this case means entering a very calculated debate in which Common, and by extension hip-hop culture, is cast as a villain worthy of our collective disdain. This demonizing comes at a time when conservatives, especially over the last two and half years, have firmly demonstrated their ability to set the tone for national media and popular discourse, replete with what has become customary double-talk, innuendo and outright distortion of the facts.
Problem is, the idea that young blacks and hip-hop culture are by definition un-American is a message that defies reality.
Voter participation for 18- to 29-year-olds enjoyed an eleven percent increase between 2000 and 2008. Cross-racial hip-hop organizing jump-started many of these mobilizing efforts. In 2008, fifty-one percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the presidential election. Fifty-eight percent of black youth 18-29 voted, the highest participation of any racial group. (Fifty-two percent of white youth voted in the same age group.) Instead of rebuking young blacks and hip-hop culture that speaks to multiracial audiences for their forays in civic engagement -- including symbolic representation at the White House -- one would think that defenders of the American way would embrace them.
But this is divide-and-conquer political theater. And the focus for conservatives who lost the presidential election by a landslide in 2008 (in part because of a cross-racial youth vote) is to win in 2012 -- at any cost. To that end, driving a wedge between this emerging, vibrant youth voting bloc is crucial. However, attempting to do so by relying on racial stereotyping, rather than the facts, is a tactic Americans concerned about the future of our democracy should not tolerate this election season.
Bakari Kitwana is senior media fellow at the Jamestown Project and the author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press, 2011)