by Rod McCullom
Cathy J. Cohen offers a rare and unique perspective on the intersection of race, sexuality, social movements and politics. The author, feminist and academic activist is one of the leading voices in LGBT academics and is currently the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. Cohen is also the deputy provost for graduate education.
Cohenwho is Black, lesbian, partnered and a parentis the principal investigator on the Black Youth Project, a national research project launched in 2003 that examines the attitudes and culture of African-American youth ages 15 to 25, and how these influence their decision-making on sex, health, and politics. Black youth have largely rejected the narrative of a "post racial society" and are socially conservative on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, writes Cohen in her latest book, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, published by Oxford University.
"But they can moved with the right incentives and interventions," Cohen told Windy City Times. "The question is how."
"There is a narrative out there that says, 'We have a new generation that is extremely tolerant. They all support same-sex marriage, they support sex education, women's reproductive rights, 10 years in the future all of these will be non-issues'," said Cohen. "The data show that is not completely true."
In an interview with Windy City Times, Cohen discussed Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics and its implications on LGBT politics, as well as some of the negative stereotypes around Black youth.
Windy City Times: Let's talk about that narrative you brought up on marriage …
Cathy J. Cohen: When our understanding of "young people" is based only on surveys of young whites, we get a distorted view of "youth" thinking. We don't allow that there are very significant differences in the youth population.
Black youth from the ages of 18 to 25 tend to be the most socially conservative group. I'm not suggesting young Blacks are much more homophobic than everyone elsebut some are. The idea is not to demonize them, but think about the necessary, culturally relevant interventions that will allow them to develop. They do think about same-sex issues, gay rights and morality of homosexuality … so we want to move and to organize people around these issues. It's an important finding in Democracy Remixed.
WCT: What are some of the possible interventions?
CC: We have to support the work of organizations that are already out there. In Chicago, think of organizations such as Affinity or Gender JUST. Or in the Latino communities, think of the work of Amigas Latinas. These organizations are important. They have legitimacy in communities of color. We have to credit them with the work [they are doing] … and not only what national LGBT organizations [say] they should do. They have issues and agendas that are important to their entire communities.
Affinity and Gender JUST support the work of young people. Other organizations we can support do not work on exclusively LGBTQ issues, but work with youth of color and expand their opportunities, such as the Chicago Freedom School.
WCT: Gender JUST has done some very good work with LGBT youth of color in Chicago, especially organizing LGBT youth in Chicago Public Schools.
CC: Absolutely! Affinity has also done some very good work, too, and has a very good youth program. And so has the Chicago Freedom School, which primarily works with youth of color. There are many local organizations doing some excellent work around sexuality, education and the intersection of those issues. If we can highlight that type of leadership, it can go a long way toward reversing some of the findings presented in the book.
WCT: In Democracy Remixed, there is a chapter on what you call "The Obama Effect." Can you talk about that and the possibility that young Black voters could be swayed to support things such as gay rights, same-sex marriage or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act?
CC: Barack Obama mobilized Black youth to historic levels. Some 97 percent of young Black people voted for Obama. We have never seen that percentage of young Blacks go to the polls. And what might be considered "wedge issues" nationally such as same-sex marriage or DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], had very little or no effect on the votes of African Americans or African-American youth in 2008.
I think Obama could motivate [young Black voters] to support these issues. I'm just worried that right now he could have lost the opportunity to motivate many voters to those and many different positions.
WCT: Oh, yeah. That's another article, though.
CC: Yes, yes. [Laughs] The window of opportunity is closing on some issues. But if we're going to try to move people, especially Black youth, to think in a broad way about LGBT issues, it's important that young Black voters listen to someone that they respect. President Obama is that person.
But there are issues that young Black people are much more concerned about than same-sex marriage. If you were to ask them what their [primary] concerns are, many would likely say schools, finding a job, the violence in their community, or housing. We can try to talk to them about same-sex marriage or LGBT rights …. but these issues are not really a concern to most young Black people, who have very few resources. If we want to organize Black youth around [LGBT rights], we need to talk about the issues that impact Black people and young Black people.
Not to suggest that same-sex marriage doesn't or will not impact the lives of young Black people. Of course it does. But the issue of education or jobs is broader and impacts many more people.
Cathy J. Cohen is also author of The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics published by the University of Chicago Press. Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics is published by Oxford University Press. It is also available on Kindle.