The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s classrooms shut down this spring. Civics lessons shifted to the streets.

This is what protests teach about political engagement.

Young protesters prepare to join a youth-led demonstration in Los Angeles on June 20, 2020, calling for an end to racial injustice and accountability for police. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

In March, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders called out young people for failing to vote on Super Tuesday. Social commentators are quick to note that less than half of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2016 presidential election.

But young Americans, particularly young black Americans, are driving the recent wave of protests in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Educators have struggled to ensure access to high-quality civic learning opportunities across America — and the protests of May and June demonstrate that empowering civics lessons often take place outside the classroom.

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Organizers have become civic educators by pushing protesters to reflect upon the historical roots of police brutality. Rallying speeches encouraged marchers to realize their own political power by engaging in protests that aimed to dismantle that system. Before marches began, speakers emphasized that the deaths of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd were part of a long line of anti-black violence in the United States, using this narrative to frame calls for policy change. This approach to civic learning is similar to the principles of “critical pedagogy,” an educational philosophy that centers on the grass-roots activities politically marginalized groups use to address systemic inequality.

In a recent article, I illustrated that highlighting this collective action among marginalized groups empowers black and Latino youths to participate politically. This approach to civic learning is quite different from traditional civics classes, which tend to focus on the political contributions of white men who held positions of power in government — think George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln.

To gauge this effect, I conducted an experiment with nearly 700 students ages 14 to 18 in classrooms within nine Chicago-area schools. Upon entering each class, I randomly assigned students to read different historical accounts of the abolitionist movement, the formation of the National Farm Workers Association and the resistance to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Though the pages that the two groups of students read looked identical, the text on the page came from two different textbooks.

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Half of the students read segments from “The American Pageant,” a traditional textbook that’s a staple in classes preparing to take the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam. The remaining students read segments from Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which takes a more critical view of many milestones in U.S. history. After reading passages about the same historical events, I asked students to report their willingness to participate in 13 political activities, including voting, campaigning for a political candidate and participating in a protest or demonstration.

Black and Latino youths reported a greater willingness to participate in a number of political activities when they read textbook passages from Zinn’s book, which highlighted the contributions of everyday people. When these historical texts show people like them engaging in collective action, the students reported greater willingness to participate politically, compared with classmates who read the more traditional textbook segments that focused on great American heroes who worked from high positions of power.

One student, a 17-year-old Latina, responded to the more critical text by saying “this made me want to get more involved. They included several labor unions that have gotten political. Then even paragraph three mentions the activism of janitors. So even acknowledging them was like ‘Wow.’ Even these people who are unheard in their career are getting involved. … It made me realize that you can do anything.”

Protesters want justice — including on social, economic and climate demands

Protests provide a lesson in civics

Protest organizers are providing similar civic learning opportunities. Speeches, emails and social media posts push individuals to recognize that recent instances of police brutality are not isolated but part of a long history connected, in many cases, to the emergence of slave patrols. Protesters are seeing the power of collective action as demonstrated by recent decisions by numerous cities, including Minneapolis, to dismantle the police. Today’s young protesters are engaging in actions similar to those that the young people included in my study read about.

For those who braved a global pandemic to take to the streets for the first time, this is a moment they won’t soon forget. Political socialization is a lifelong process, but formative experiences often occur quite early in life. And political participation is habit-forming. Just as voting in one election increases the likelihood that someone will vote in another, protesters are learning that collective action can be an effective way to make one’s political voice heard.

My research suggests that participating in the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 has the potential to foster feelings of empowerment, for those who take to the streets as well as those who may read about this moment in their civic education classes. For anyone quick to dismiss young people in America as politically disengaged, the activism driven by young black organizers seriously challenges that narrative.

Matthew Nelsen (@nelsen_matt) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.