Two years ago, Amanda Wilkerson ’16EdD was preparing to dive into her National Science Foundation-funded study on the political socialization of and impact of culturally relevant messaging on historically black colleges and university (HBCU) students.
Now, her research has culminated in a report recently published by the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), through which she is a visiting scholar. Wilkerson, an assistant professor of higher education at UCF, is the lead author of The Other Black Voter: Analyzing the Political Socialization of Florida’s HBCU Students.
The report, co-authored by School of Public Administration postdoctoral scholar Rebecca Entress, highlights the perspectives of Black youth voters at Florida HBCUs and how they engage with politics to effect change. Their research synthesized input from Black youth voters in the 18-29 age range, examining the civic engagement discourse and initiatives they value the most.
“HBCUs have shaped elections and the entire political landscape but are often ignored by researchers,” Entress says. “This research sheds light on how students at HBCUs form their political opinions, how they vote and how they feel about political messaging.”
The report also offers a set of recommendations for researchers, practitioners, postsecondary educational institutions, and nonpartisan voting organizations with the goal of informing their comprehensive understanding of political socialization — or what influences the beliefs, actions and values — of the Black youth voter demographic.
In conducting their research, Wilkerson and Entress traveled to select Florida HBCUs to administer surveys and focus groups with a total of 118 participants. Students were asked about political socialization, relevant political issues, political advertisements, and the importance of culturally relevant messaging.
The researchers found six critical themes emerged from their study:
- Digital Messaging Doubts: Participants found messaging on social media to be untrustworthy.
- Campaign Messaging Failures: Negative campaign advertisements tend to instill a heightened sense of uncertainty toward the sender.
- Historical Meaning of Voting: Young voters now prefer to vote only when they feel they can trust elected officials’ commitment to advancing their interest rather than voting to participate.
- Voter Apathy Doesn’t Stop Voter Activism: Participants may not vote if there is no candidate they feel strongly about. Instead, they might engage in other forms of civic participation, such as protesting.
- Political Party Dissonance: Young voters tend to take a more critical standpoint on partisanship.
- Administrative Voting Burdens: Increased bureaucratic challenges that Black college-aged individuals might experience can affect their voting engagement.
“There hasn’t really been any research done regarding the impact of culturally relevant political messaging on Black youth,” Wilkerson says. “They provide a unique opportunity for us to see into the future because Generation Z is among the largest group of voters and incoming voters. If they are engaged in a way that we don’t understand and democracy is going to be in their hands, we have to ensure that we are examining their evolution today and not being afraid of their revolution in the future. I think it’s so important that we go beyond just the cliches of what we think we know about these voters by offering a more comprehensive understanding of them.”
Insight gleaned from participants in their study showed that while one of the most amplified political messages — “Go vote!” — is simple and has remained largely unchanged, it has become stale to young voters, as they don’t need to be told to vote. The voters want people to know where they stand on important issues and seek accountability for action that addresses them.
“One participant stunned all of us by saying, ‘We don’t care about you trying to be relatable, we just want you to be reliable,’” Wilkerson says. “We’re giving them the same message that was given to my mother and the one that I absorbed, and we haven’t changed it. When we think about all the opportunities and resources that are spent on encouraging people to be civically engaged, the bulk of it is spent on messaging — yet the message of ‘just go vote’ is wrong for this generation. I think this finding is going to get people to reimagine political messaging in the future.”
And while Florida polling data showed that the Black youth demographic represented a low voter turnout in Florida, no one seems to have asked Black youths why this was the case — something Wilkerson and her team sought to understand.
They found voter apathy doesn’t stop voter activism, but voting for the “lesser evil” is no longer satisfactory. The participants in the researchers’ study would rather engage in other forms of political activism, such as protesting, to make their voices heard.
Wilkerson says civic engagement constitutes more than just voting and can include protesting, giving to a campaign or volunteering. However, much more weight is typically put on voting.
“Black youth voters are civically engaged; they just may not be engaged according to how we want them to be,” she says. “They’re very in tune with using their socialization to engage how they want to and when they want to. We are very interested in elevating and amplifying their voices. That’s what we’re bringing light to.”
Other findings indicate that Black youth voters in the study exercise a level of distrust regarding digital messaging on social media platforms and political candidates who employ negative campaign advertisements.
The recommendations found in the report are tailored to optimizing civic engagement efforts for HBCU student voters, HBCUs with civic engagement-focused centers, and those interested in strengthening the civic engagement and political messaging landscapes.
Each was intended to involve changing practices rather than creating programming to curtail any financial concerns postsecondary education institutions and other organizations might have.
Recommendations are divided into seven distinct categories that address improving civic engagement communication strategies, diversifying engagement approaches, elevating participation and learning, promoting civic accessibility and student involvement in educational institutions, and leveraging social media in political messaging. Each serves to strengthen the political landscape by actively engaging Black youth voters.
“The value of Dr. Wilkerson and Dr. Entress’ findings and practitioner takeaways is evident in this report, and I commend their dedication to this area of impactful research,” says B. Grant Hayes, dean of the College of Community Innovation and Education.
Wilkerson earned her doctorate in higher education and policy studies from UCF and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in political science from Florida A&M University. She joined UCF’s Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education in 2019.