Political Apathy Crosses All Racial & Ethnic Barriers: Obama, President Of This Nation, Not Just Minority Groups

July 27, 2010
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President Barack Obama standing at a podium

Dear Sticky Wicket,

Many of my friends are apolitical. How can I get my friends to take an active role in politics? Why are so many ethnic minorities turned off by politics? Have things changed in the age of Obama?

Political apathy is not just a problem confined to ethnic minorities according to Masood Ashraf Raja, an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas. He says that many Americans don't have faith in the political system, so they do not see the point in voting. “Americans generally are more apathetic to national politics and the reasons vary: Lack of trust in the government to change things, and a sense of powerlessness against the power of corporations, could be the two leading reasons for this attitude,” Raja says. 

He adds that the American education system does not encourage intellectual or political discussion. “Our K-12 model is fairly utilitarian,” Raja says “We are more focused on creating useful tools for the economy and not much is invested in a humanistic education that teaches the norms and habits of critical thought and responsible citizenship. As a result, the students we produce can be really good clerks and tools in the larger machine of capital, but not many of them develop the kind of critical consciousness required of a fully-engaged citizen.”

The situation is compounded among ethnic minorities who often face social problems such as crime-ridden neighborhoods, crumbling families and substandard school systems. Raja says these bleak social conditions often causes anger among ethnic youths which is often directed inwardly.”Their anger is either channeled against each other or is appropriated in the name of consumption which, obviously, is encouraged through all forms of media,” Raja says. 

However Raja says that he has noticed a surge in activism on college campuses especially among groups which are currently facing a backlash from the political system. “Political awareness and activism is on the rise amongst the new ethnic groups such as the Latinos and Muslim Americans, and the basic reason for this is certainly that these groups still feel excluded and are often demonized in the current political and economic system.”

Maurice Cherry, founder and chairman of the Black Weblog Awards, says many young people were motivated by Barack Obama's campaign which tapped heavily into social media. “The more tech-savvy ethnic minorities are certainly more politically engaged now than years prior,” Cherry says. “However, having been on the streets and knocking on doors and shaking hands with people, as well as trying to figure out how to meet them where they are with political engagement, is an entirely different challenge.” 

Raja says a lot of Obama supporters may be disappointed because his actions have failed to live up to his soaring rhetoric. But Obama fans fail to realize that the current president is a pragmatic politician. “There is a vast difference between the rhetoric of a candidate, and the pragmatic realities that a president must deal with.” he says. “Yes, he is the first black president, but he also must now posit a self-view that is more inclusive; he is not just the president of black people or minorities.”

According to Raja, Obama has done a fairly good job living up to some of the promises he made to his supporters.  “His [Obama’s] actions, so far, would certainly end up taking care of his base, such as the healthcare bill, the revision of student loan system, credit card agreements, all, in a way, that would indirectly help the minorities, who traditionally are far behind in access to national resources for upward mobility. The best way to keep the minorities engaged is by pointing out the long-term results of what the president has already accomplished, and by also educating the people that they cannot expect miracles, nor should they expect President Obama to exclusively align himself with minority rights.”

Raja feels that young people need to be constantly educated about the political system. “We need to keep reminding people through workshops, group discussions, and general conversation that a lot is at stake in the public sphere, and that if they do not stay politically engaged, they will soon become irrelevant to the system.”

Political apathy has dangerous long-term repercussions. Raja says ignoring the political system allows the influx of political groups who have more extreme views. “We can see that happening even now in the Tea Party movement: A group of well-heeled, well-funded members of the majority who  have somehow, started mobilizing the vocabularies of the fringe movements in order to forestall, what they see as, but never state, as the takeover of America by minorities.” So, if the minorities stop participating in politics, they will leave the political arena open to the very worst, exclusivist, and racist vision of America.”