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Wake the sleeping giant

'I’m just worried that a lot of folks who are in the street won’t make it to the ballot box.'

James BernardHANDOUT

Back in 1992, I flew out to L.A. the day after the riots broke out following the Rodney King verdict and I interviewed a lot of people on the ground, literally people who had been smashing windows the day before. And two things struck me about how they were approaching this. One was that these people were able to tell me which stores they hit based on how well they treated community residents. Certainly, people got TVs, I’m not trying to downplay that, but there was a real idea of who they wanted in their communities and who they didn’t want, and that struck me as being very thoughtful.

The other thing was that there was an immediate gang truce, which was unusual to say the least. Within days, a group of Bloods and Crips got together with a lawyer and came up with a social justice agenda. More hospitals, more education centers in our community, it was pretty detailed.


Today, I think the challenge is turning that same kind of momentum into real political gains. Particularly if Biden wins, we’ve got the ear of a lot of the country and if we present specific demands, I think the energy can keep going.

As for the election itself, it’s about the Black youth vote, and the youth vote in general. We are in danger of the Black youth vote not waking up. Even before my time, they used to call the Black vote the “sleeping giant”; they’d say that if Black people ever voted the way we could, we could really turn a lot of elections, particularly in the South.

Actually, I don’t think about it in terms of demographics as much as psychographics — I’ve always called it the hip-hop vote. I see young, white activists today acting different than in my time: a little less white guilt, a little more doing this not on behalf of anyone else, but because they want a better world, too. For both Black and white, I’m just worried that a lot of folks who are in the street won’t make it to the ballot box.


When we started The Source, we were the only hip-hop magazine and there was an identifiable hip-hop community. When people rebelled against the Rodney King verdict, that was our audience. But hip-hop has gotten bigger than any of us imagined, so now if you’re under 40, you probably have some knowledge of and affinity for hip-hop. The people who were somehow shaped or influenced by hip-hop culture, that’s a big part of the electorate. And in my mind, there were values in the hip-hop community: a certain anti-establishment stance that can be tapped into and is waiting to be tapped into. That’s the new sleeping giant.

James Bernard, 55, co-founded the Source magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more in this series go to bostonglobe.com/opinion/black-voices-now.