Hit Hard by Pandemic, Youth of Color are Leading Activism, New Poll Finds

Organizers at a youth-led Black Lives Matter march in Oakland on June 1.  (Racquel Richardson)

Like many young people in California, UC Berkeley sophomore Racquel Richardson has had to deal with a lot in 2020.

When her campus transitioned to distance learning she moved back home with her mom in Oakland. Then, she had to pack again—this time, to help her mother relocate to the East Coast in search of more affordable housing. Richardson is staying behind and looking for her own place, but she can’t exactly ask other family members for financial help: her dad and grandmother’s business, a hair salon, is currently closed because of the pandemic. And other responsibilities keep stacking up, including helping her young siblings transition to distance learning while she keeps up with her own online classes.

Even with all these difficulties, Richardson has stayed politically active, marching alongside protestors to demand police accountability and racial justice throughout the summer. She’s not alone. Activists in their teens and 20s have had an outsized role in the latest wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. And a new poll of youth voters of color from the nonprofit Power California reveals that they’re bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic downturn while leading the charge in civic engagement.

The results of the poll indicate that many young people of color have fallen through the gaps in California’s pandemic response; 46% answered that they live in a household that has struggled to afford food, medicine and other basic necessities. “It’s a lot of profit-over-people mentality,” says Richardson, citing a lack of support for renters and small business owners. “It’s not ‘get people better so that the community can flourish’—it’s so people can get back to work.”

As the country gears up for the November election and candidates seek to entice young, diverse voters to the polls, the Power California survey sheds light on this particular demographic’s struggles and concerns, as well as their political priorities. Based on a sample of 1,509 voters, ages 18–29 from all over California, it offers nuanced statistics on youth voters of Black, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Latinx descent, rather than lumping people of color together as a monolith.

Power California organizer Tyler Okeke at an action in Los Angeles. (Power California)

“[The poll] kind of validates the experiences that we’re already feeling,” says Tyler Okeke, an organizer with Power California, who’s from Los Angeles and studies public policy at the University of Chicago. “When students across the country were told to go back to homes that might not exist, going back to economic situations and living situations that weren’t really stable, people were panicking—how will I feed myself? These are needs that need to be addressed if young people are going to emerge from this strong and surviving.”

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The Power California poll reveals that 35% of respondents lost their jobs during the pandemic, while 47% had their hours or pay cut. 48% of respondents work outside the home, highlighting the major role young people of color play in the essential workforce.

Even while enduring these financial difficulties, young people and their families are organizing mutual aid efforts. “A lot of support is local support,” says 18-year-old Los Angeles activist Kelsey Hernandez, who is part of the organization InnerCity Struggle. According to the poll, 67% of young people don’t feel the state is doing enough in its pandemic response. They rated income, food, medicine and rent and mortgage relief as the top areas of concern.

Hernandez put plans to attend UC Santa Cruz on hold to help care for her siblings and nephews while her mom and sister go to work in an elder care facility. Her dad, who is undocumented, is currently out of work and ineligible for government aid. “We set up donation centers,” she adds. “We set up where students can get their school supplies. It’s not these big companies that the government puts so much money into.”

Even amid the struggles of the pandemic, the survey shows that young voters want to see legislation that promotes racial justice above all else. The Black, Latinx and Asian American respondents all rated stopping police brutality against Black Americans as their highest political priority, above coronavirus aid. That’s likely because 49% of Black respondents, 29% of Latinx respondents and 18% of Asian American respondents said that they or someone they know have had a negative encounter with police.

Power California's poll of youth voters shows that they consider racial justice a top issue. (Power California)

“These are issues we’ve been facing since before this pandemic,” says Eugene Vang, a UC San Diego student originally from Merced who is part of Power California’s Central Valley social justice campaign, 99 Rootz. He spent his last year in high school registering peers to vote, and he’s heartened by the fact that 47% of survey respondents said they’ll definitely vote in November, and that 80% said it was more important to participate now than in 2016.

“Young people are stepping up,” says Vang, “and educating our family members that these are our needs and we need to demand for it.”