By William Harms
Photo illustration by Robert Kozloff

Dr. Cohen has inspired me to be a voice of hope in the political arena for other young people of color who may have felt like their voice did not matter.”
—Edward James
AB’11

Prof. Cathy Cohen says she was inspired to do research on the political lives of black youth after watching her own young relatives contend with social and political realities.

Her nieces and nephews reflected a wide spectrum of young African American experience. Some found success in life and seized opportunities, while others struggled with barriers to their progress, especially in failing public schools.

“Ironically, while they all had very clear opinions about politics, education and many of the other issues confronting them and the country, the opinions of young black people were rarely considered in the academy,” says Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science at UChicago. “My work is an attempt to amplify their voices so that they are heard.”

Cohen, who is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the fields of race and politics and the emerging field of new media and politics, recently embarked on an ambitious study with Prof. Joseph Kahne of Mills College, exploring how youth in America engage with new media in the political arena. They found that cell phones, video games, and social media have changed the way young people organize politically, creating a new domain of political action that the researchers call participatory politics. Cohen and Kahne also discovered that the flourishing of smart phones and other digital devices has erased some of the “digital divide” that previously hindered online political mobilization among black and Latino youth.

“Young people can take a video on a cell phone and share it widely, or make connections with people in other countries playing a video game that can lead to a broader political conversation,” Cohen says. “All this is different from political mobilization in the past, as it happens with fewer gatekeepers and sometimes among a large group of people who have never met but have the same interests.”

This type of political participation does not depend on the guidance of television anchors and other media heavyweights who mediate the message to determine what is important. “These young people are often creating and tailoring their own media,” she says.

Political change in real time

New media can be an organizing tool of traditional, institutional politics, but it also helps young people respond in real time to political issues.

A bill that would have curtailed digital piracy, something that had wide support in the U.S. Congress, for instance, died a sudden death when a social media campaign sprang up against it. Social media also powered the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cohen notes.

“In Chicago, we saw the power of a cell phone video to bring attention to a problem when a video of the beating death of Derrion Albert was widely shared,” Cohen says. Because of the video, that Sept. 24, 2009 incident involving a Fenger High School student launched a national discussion on teen violence. It also caused President Obama to send U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Chicago to explore the issue.

All politics is local

Cohen got interested in new media by noticing how much her students used cell phones, laptops, and other technology to connect with their friends. “To me, the best research is localized research, the kind that comes from seeing what is happening in people’s day-to-day lives. New media is a central part of young peoples’ lives and their culture,” she explains.

One of Cohen’s strengths as a researcher is her personal understanding of how young people perceive political issues, says Edward James, AB’11.

“Dr. Cohen is not a scholar far removed from the reality on the ground,” says James, who studied with Cohen and is now working as a political field organizer in Florida. “She uses scholarship to advance the lives of the most marginalized elements of our society. On a very personal level, Dr. Cohen has inspired me to be a voice of hope in the political arena for other young people of color who may have felt like their voice did not matter.”

Cohen is part of a group of Political Science faculty at UChicago who study the impact of new media on politics, along with Michael Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science, and Betsy Sinclair, Assistant Professor in Political Science.

Cohen’s interest in youth and new media has led to important studies, including the recently published report, “Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action.” Co-authored with Kahne, the report looks at the changing landscape of digital communication among people aged 18 to 25.

“Things have changed since the 2008 election, when social media became integrated into almost every aspect of the presidential campaign,” Cohen says.

The study found a number of surprises, including an absence of a digital divide between black and white youth. Although black youth, for instance, are less likely to own a computer (72 percent versus 84 percent for whites), the differences evaporate with other new media devices. Among black youth, 60 percent own a cell phone, 64 percent have a handheld device that connects to the Internet, 51 percent have a gaming device, and 94 percent have some access to a computer — connections that are equal to or greater than the numbers for whites. 

Giving young people a voice

Cohen's earlier work included an examination of political behavior and attitudes among black youth. Those findings are highlighted in her most recent book, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. She has also founded a website, http://www.blackyouthproject.com, which serves as one of the few spaces on the web where black youth consistently provide commentary on issues ranging from politics to popular culture.

The Black Youth Project’s first report was issued in 2007 and showed that African American youth were just as politically motivated as other youth, but felt marginalized and alienated from the political process. Since that first report Cohen and other project researchers have authored a series of memos, fact sheets, and reports on the political engagement of youth, especially black youth. The most recent report on the potential impact of photo identification laws on the turnout of youth of color in the 2012 election, entitled “Turning Back the Clock on Voting Rights,” received wide media attention and was featured in the New York Times.

Her work suggests that digital media give young people, particularly black youth, a political space to call their own. It also allows us to ask important questions about their political engagement that will impact the country’s future.

“While this generation of young African Americans is much talked-about by pundits in the media, they are rarely talked with and asked to engage in dialogue,” Cohen said in launching the Black Youth Project’s website. The Black Youth Project site and other digital media provide a place “where young people can speak for themselves instead of having other people speak for them.”

Originally published on October 15, 2012.