Yes, Youth Activism Has A Whiteness Problem, But It’s Not As Bad As Activism Among Older Adults

Tufts Public Opinion Lab
6 min readNov 30, 2021

by Jennifer Best (Class of ‘22)

Young people are an increasingly large — and important — part of the US electorate. Not only are they a growing portion of the electorate, but many young people are involved in activism, ranging from protesting to working on political campaigns. Despite the importance of young people in activism, little is known about how frequently they are involved in activism, and whether there is something approaching racial equality among youth activists.

Traditional political institutions have often prevented young people of color from taking part in civic engagement and activism. This has occurred both through civic education being different in predominantly white versus schools with the majority of students being people of color, and laws which have ingrained whiteness of traditional politics, in part through increased policing of people of color. But despite rampant barriers, people of color, especially Black people, have long created their own political organizations and institutions to make their voices heard, whether through groups to lobby elected officials or mass protest movements. What remains unclear is whether the whiteness of traditional political institutions spreads to youth activism as a whole. To determine whether this is the case, I turned to the 2020 Cooperative Election Survey (CES), which provided me with a sample of over 7,000 young adults aged 18–25, and 54,000 adults older than 25. I compared the rates of activism among young adults to older adults, and then broke activism down by type to see if different kinds of activism are more used by young people of certain races. I measured activism as those who said they had (during the past year) attended local political meetings; put up a political sign; worked for a candidate or campaign, attended a political protest, march or demonstration; contacted a public official; or donated money to a candidate, campaign, or political organization. I considered an individual to be an activist if they reported doing any of these activities. Ultimately, I found that white people are more involved in activism among both young and older adults.

As a whole, young adults have similar rates of activism regardless of their race. The only statistically significant difference among young people is that white young people are a few percentage points more likely to be involved in activism than Hispanic young people, though the difference is small. Differences in rates of activism among white, Black, and Asian young adults are insignificant. In comparison, older white adults are more likely to report having been involved in activism than older Black, Hispanic or Asian adults, with the difference being much larger than the difference between White and Hispanic young adults.

This is important, because it shows that the racial disparity in activism primarily appears and grows as adults get older. This disparity could have two causes. It could be that it gets worse as adults grow older, meaning that when people who are currently older were younger, the disparity did not exist. Alternately, the disparities might have always existed among the older generations, meaning that the same disparity existed when current older generations were younger. While this does not show that individual youth activist spaces are more integrated than activist spaces of older adults, there are similar proportions of young people involved in activism, largely regardless of race. It is important to remember, though, that Hispanic youth still do have lower levels of participation in activism, meaning that youth activist spaces need to do a better job at recruiting, supporting, and retaining Hispanic youth activists. While many forms of activism are primarily individual choices, organizations can influence people to partake in certain activities by creating opportunities and making them enticing. Just because the disparities among young adults are not as large as older adults does not mean that youth activist spaces can ignore race. Youth activists must make sure that their recruitment practices, and their methods of supporting existing activists, supports people of all races, especially Hispanics.

Working on a political campaign is one of the most obvious forms of activism, but it is also incredibly time-consuming and does not pay well. People of color, especially Black and Hispanic people, have disproportionately lower levels of wealth than white people. The function of payment while working on a campaign could influence who participates in it in two ways. It may increase the likelihood of people of color campaigning, as it does pay whereas other forms of activism do not. However, the opposite effect may be seen as the pay is minimal in comparison to the amount of emotional and physical labor required of campaign staffers. This would mean that people without outside financial support or wealth to supplement their official income, largely people of color in comparison to white people, would be less likely to work on a campaign.

The data do not specify whether specific respondents were paid for working on a campaign. So while either effect of payment could be present, my findings cannot determine whether they are present and whether one is larger than the other. Regardless, there was no statistically significant difference in the rates of campaigning among the subset of young people who had participated in at least one form of activism. There were low rates of campaigning among all races, which is unsurprising because it is much more time-intensive than other forms of activism, as it generally entails working on a campaign as a full-time job, rather than taking an afternoon to protest or attend a community meeting.

The other form of activism I will be individually looking at is participating in a protest. Since this survey was conducted in late 2020, it would be likely that young people of color, especially young Black people, would have higher rates of protesting considering the mass Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in Summer 2020.

Despite this, there were no statistically significant differences among the subset of young people involved in any form of activism when split by race. Around twice as many people who had participated in any form of activism had protested in comparison to campaigning. This is likely because campaigning is a much more institutionalized form of activism, whereas protesting has fewer barriers to entry.

There were not large disparities based on race in youth activism, though they were there. While there was a slightly higher rate of white young people participating in activism compared to Hispanic young people, that disparity was not as pronounced as the white versus non-white racial disparity in activism among older adults. Among young people, rates of activism that require more significant time and energy, including campaigning and protesting, have lower rates of participation than those that are more hobbyist, even among people who participated in other forms of activism. This means that, in order to increase the number of people involved in activism, activist spaces, both younger and older, need to do a better job at recruiting, supporting and retaining activists of all races, especially in more time-intensive areas of activism.

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Tufts Public Opinion Lab

The Tufts Public Opinion Lab (TPOL) is dedicated to studying contemporary controversies in American public opinion using quantitative data analysis.