A Caucus for Black Youth

Eli Day

A protest in support of the Black lives matter movement in New York on July 9, 2016. (Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

DETROIT — In a goth­ic-inspired build­ing on the leafy cam­pus of Mary­grove Col­lege, rough­ly 40 Black orga­niz­ers, activists and every­day peo­ple gath­er on Feb­ru­ary 22 for a mock cau­cus.

But this cau­cus breaks with the ones we’ve seen in 2020: It places the aspi­ra­tions of Black com­mu­ni­ties centerstage.

The event ignites with a chant, lit by an orga­niz­er with Detroit’s chap­ter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a nation­al youth-led orga­ni­za­tion against racial, gen­der and eco­nom­ic injus­tice. Unapolo­get­i­cal­ly!” the orga­niz­er thun­ders. The room roars back, Black!”

Orga­nized by BYP100 and the Move­ment for Black Lives (M4BL) Elec­toral Jus­tice Project, the 2020 Black Demo­c­ra­t­ic Cau­cus is inten­tion­al­ly set in the Black­est major U.S. city. The goal is to mea­sure each candidate’s agen­da against the many burn­ing issues fac­ing Black communities.

Cau­cus­go­ers spill into the build­ing and are sort­ed into ran­dom groups of sev­en to 10. Each group rotates through 20-minute pol­i­cy ses­sions on hous­ing, health­care, crim­i­nal jus­tice reform and edu­ca­tion, based on the stat­ed plat­forms of the four high­est-polling Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates for pres­i­dent. Cau­cus­go­ers vote at the close of each ses­sion, but with­out know­ing their can­di­date — can­di­dates have been anonymized as A, B, C and D. For bet­ter or worse, can­di­dates are judged with­out knowl­edge of their per­son­al­i­ties or track records.

We focus on issues and pol­i­cy” instead, says Jew­el But­ler, 25, a Detroit BYP100 mem­ber and fel­low with the M4BL.

Shon­i­qua Kemp, lead orga­niz­er with Detroit Action (a grass­roots, mem­ber-led orga­ni­za­tion), facil­i­tates the dis­cus­sion on hous­ing. She begins by sketch­ing a dev­as­tat­ing image of Black homeownership.

For many Black house­holds, the hous­ing cri­sis nev­er end­ed,” Kemp says. Indeed, more than a decade after Wall Street plu­to­crats dec­i­mat­ed the already skele­tal wealth of Black fam­i­lies (before run­ning off with tril­lions in fed­er­al relief), Black home­own­er­ship has plum­met­ed to record lows.

Kemp shows a slide that says Can­di­date A vows to pro­vide assis­tance to peo­ple hurt by fed­er­al hous­ing pol­i­cy fail­ures” and com­mu­ni­ties caught in the decades-long teeth of redlin­ing and hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion. One cau­cus­go­er remarks, Those are obvi­ous­ly Black neigh­bor­hoods that are now being gen­tri­fied.” The cau­cus also likes Can­di­date B’s plan, and con­cludes that Can­di­dates C and D’s plans wouldn’t mean­ing­ful­ly improve home own­er­ship among poor and work­ing-class Black Detroiters. 

The ses­sions are rich with excite­ment for bold action bal­anced with skep­ti­cism that any plat­form goes far enough. What is clear is the urgency of putting peo­ple in homes and repair­ing the vicious lega­cies of hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and exploita­tion by cor­po­rate Goliaths.

Cap­i­tal­ism teach­es us that some peo­ple don’t deserve’ things,” says cau­cus­go­er PG Watkins, a life­long Detroi­ter. I believe that’s bull­shit, and that every­one deserves a safe place to live. I want us to devel­op and advo­cate for poli­cies that acknowl­edge that hous­ing is a basic human right.”

The same urgency is felt for health­care, crim­i­nal jus­tice reform and edu­ca­tion. Take the hor­rif­i­cal­ly high rates of Black unin­sur­ance (9.7%) and mater­nal mor­tal­i­ty (3.3 times that of their white coun­ter­parts). Or the suf­fo­cat­ing debt Black stu­dents face (near­ly five times like­li­er than white stu­dents to default). Or the socio­path­ic cru­el­ty of our racist pun­ish­ment system.

On every issue, cau­cus­go­ers rank Sens. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (A) and Bernie Sanders (B) first and sec­ond, respec­tive­ly. Can­di­date C is Joe Biden and D is Michael Bloomberg. While many were thrilled to see their pro­gres­sive hopes with­stand the face­less process, the enthu­si­asm is even­tu­al­ly brought down to earth.

As the day wraps, BYP100 mem­bers clar­i­fy that today is not a road to polit­i­cal endorse­ment. Rukia Lumum­ba, a Mis­sis­sip­pi-based human rights leader and co-chair of the Elec­toral Jus­tice Project of MB4L, stress­es that elec­tions are sim­ply one tool in our arse­nal to work toward lib­er­a­tion” rather than a free­dom-deliv­er­ing gemstone.

The results seem to endorse a future when pop­u­lar move­ments force a redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth to every­day peo­ple, through pro­grams like Medicare for All and mas­sive invest­ments in K‑12 edu­ca­tion, while tak­ing a sledge­ham­mer to racial and eco­nom­ic oppres­sion and mass incar­cer­a­tion. That’s an agen­da, cau­cus­go­ers believe, that can move Black peo­ple to not only vote, but join move­ments that alter the country’s social and eco­nom­ic fabric. 

We com­ing hard with our issues,” But­ler says. Who­ev­er wins office, we mak­ing sure they know what we want, and that they under­stand how we com­ing to get what we want.”

ELI DAY was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He’s also a Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in Vox, Cur­rent Affairs, Moth­er Jones, and the New Repub­lic, among others.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue