Congressional Black Caucus members (L-R) Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
If you ask Indiana Rep. André Carson what it’s like being one of the youngest members of the Congressional Black Caucus—he’s 37—you can hear the awe in his voice.
“To see an Emanuel Cleaver, to see a John Lewis, to see a Maxine Waters every day at work,” he trails off, listing legislators whose names are often linked with civil rights. Most of them could well be his parents. He holds the seat of his late grandmother, Rep. Julia Carson, who was herself a larger-than-life figure in Indiana’s black politics for years.
The Democrat, who took office in 2008, says working with his grandmother’s former peers on a daily basis is inspiring. But, Carson adds, “when you’re at the table with them and you open your mouth, they’re listening to what you have to say.”
That’s why, he says, it’s so important to get young people involved in the political process. There’s lots to learn, but there’s room to take ownership.
A thousand miles away, Mahlon Mitchell—the 35-year-old first black president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, a branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters union—is running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor in the state, to take some ownership.
“I believe that a lot of politicians—a lot of them go in with good intentions, but a lot of them are worried more about their seats than their service,” Mitchell says. “My problem with Democrats and Republicans has been, whether you have a D or R behind your name, if you’re doing the wrong thing you shouldn’t be in office.”
Mitchell says he didn’t find his path to politics with the help of party leadership. Rather, he and Carson share public service backgrounds: Mitchell as a fire fighter, Carson as a police officer. Personal and professional opportunities drew them into the world of politics, slowly. And they are unique in both their youth and their race.
To be fair, the age question isn’t limited to people of color. The 111h Congress, which took office alongside President Obama in 2009, was among the oldest in history, according to the Wall Street Journal. But four years after an election in which young people of color played a larger role than they had in generations, one of the great unanswered questions for 2012 is whether and how those young people will stay engaged in electoral politics. Black youth of all classes have been uniquely battered by the recession. Young people of all races have faced an Obama administration in which the practicalities of making change in policy haven’t been as inspired as the rhetoric of it in campaigning. Will that generation continue to vote, organize and even find their way into key campaign roles in such significant numbers?
Mitchell sees a lack of involvement from young people of color in Wisconsin, but chalks it up to optics. “A problem is that we don’t see a lot of politicians in our community at all. We don’t have common, normal people—middle class citizens in those seats.”
In the run-up to the general election this November, get-out-the-vote efforts are being mobilized by both parties (well, some are attempting to suppress-the-vote). But beyond that, Mitchell says, engagement is sorely lacking. “We hear rhetoric. All we hear about is job creation and education, but we don’t see that in our communities anyway.”
To Mitchell, the solution is getting more young people of color—like him, naturally—elected, and listening. “I grew up middle class, and I don’t act like I know what everyone is going through, but we need to actually go and sit down and listen.”
Carson says it’s time for young people to become a voting bloc. “I think young people have to see clearly how they can really make a change. Beyond rhetoric and beyond glowing speeches, they have to know their participation can make a difference.” Unlike older people whom, Carson says, know from experience that their votes count, young people aren’t there yet. “We need to challenge and cultivate young people.”
For Carson, voting flows naturally toward more political participation. That participation can be as simple as being in touch with members of Congress, but it can also mean getting into office.
“When most of your colleagues are old enough to be your parent or grandparent and many people my age are staffers, it presents an opportunity. Not only to influence, but to offer a different perspective,” Carson adds.