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For black Millennials, a determined hope tempered by frustration

Black Millennials are confident in their ability to create political change, just not in the politicians charged with following through, a study finds. 

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Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Paul, Minn., block traffic to and from a National Football League game on Sept. 20.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/AP/File

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By some very prominent measures, black America is more politically powerful than ever before. The president is black, as is the current front-runner for the Republican nomination for president, Ben Carson. There are more black members of Congress than ever before, and black mayors govern major cities from Philadelphia to Denver.

And yet, in personal lives, African Americans still say they feel overly targeted for petty crimes such as traffic stops and major ones such as drug use. Young blacks feel more accepted than ever – embraced by Americans popular culture and no longer subject to the overt racism of Jim Crow – yet still separate.

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In short, black Millennials are conflicted, and research out this week shows how that mingled sense of new opportunity and old frustration has found powerful expression since protests broke out over the police shooting of a black youth in Ferguson, Mo., last year.

Black Millennials are more confident than any other young group that they can make a difference through political participation – 71 percent, compared with 52 percent of white Millennials and 56 percent of Latino Millennials, according to the study by the Black Youth Project at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. Yet more than half of black Millennials also said they had been the victim of police violence or harassment or knew someone who had.

The result has been the rise of a new black civil rights movement – headlined by Black Lives Matter – that is heady with its own success, yet in some senses also angry that it needs to exist.

“Yes, we have organizing happening, we have a black president, we have a black man leading the Republican primary,” says Robert Ruffins, a 20-something former teacher who is now a community organizer in New Orleans. “But at the other end of it, the reason we have so much of this organizing is a recognition of what hasn’t happened.”

“It’s a weird moment,” he says.

The confusion is representative of a larger paradox within black political activism that has been growing since the election of President Obama in 2008, but which has intensified since Ferguson. Young blacks have faith in their ability to agitate and disrupt, but they have little faith in the politicians who must ultimately turn that activism into law.

“Black millennials report the highest level of confidence that they have the skills and knowledge to exercise their political voices and participate in politics,” writes Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at the University of Washington in St. Louis and a co-author of the “Black Millennials in America” report, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “But [they] also express the greatest frustration with current political leaders.”

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The generation that proved decisive in sending Mr. Obama to the White House twice may now be losing its faith in institutional politics, Professor Rogowski adds.

“For many young people, the Obama presidency has been disappointing in the sense that his presidency, many argue, has not brought about the systemic change he seemed to promise in 2008,” he says. “In addition [to voting], we also see that young Black adults report being politically engaged in a number of ways beyond voting compared to young whites, and #BlackLivesMatter represents one example.”

Jason Kennedy and Devon Simon, both black 19-year-olds, shake their heads when asked if they feel politically empowered.

“I feel like what I have to say doesn’t really matter and will never be taken into consideration or [taken] that seriously,” says Mr. Kennedy as the pair grab lunch in a Wendy’s in Boston.

The perception could be generational, says Rogowski. Older generations might feel that their mission was accomplished with the election of Obama, but Millennials have been conditioned to expect more.  

“Like all Millennials, [we] grew up in world of unparalleled choice. We expect our voices to be heard,” says Mr. Ruffins, the community organizer in New Orleans. “We have grown up with an expectation of being powerful.”

But “when that power is taken away from us, when we’re stopped on the street and no amount of education or respectability politics, no amounts of rights you have, can protect you from literally having your life taken away, that creates a weird tension,” he adds. “We believe we’re powerful because we’ve been told we’re powerful, but we’re confronting the limits” of that.

Daunashia Yancey, also a Millennial, is on the front lines of that confrontation. A member of Black Lives Matter Boston who was involved in a tense conversation with Hillary Clinton in August, Ms. Yancey says that the group’s success stems in part from the fact that it is a “multitactic movement” that includes traditional efforts like voter registration drives and direct actions like blockades and occupations.

“There’s a lot of things you can do in the political system, but there’s also a lot of things that you can’t,” she adds. “By working outside of the traditional or the set way that folks are supposed to work within politics, by stepping outside of that we actually get a little bit further.”

Ruffins echoes her frustrations with the traditional ways of politics: “I think our generation trusts the system, but I think that trust might be wearing out.”