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Youth in a Suspect Society: Coming of Age in an Era of Disposability

We are losing the very idea of the public good, the notion of connecting learning to social change.

Part of the Series

In spite of being discredited by the economic recession of 2008, neoliberalism, or market fundamentalism as it is called in some quarters, has once again returned with a vengeance. The Gilded Age is back with big profits for the rich and corporations, and increasing impoverishment and misery for the middle and working class. Political illiteracy has cornered the market on populist rage. providing a political bonus for those who are responsible for massive levels of inequality, poverty, mortgage defaults, unacceptable levels of unemployment, and sundry other hardships. As social protections are dismantled, public servants denigrated and public goods such as schools, bridges, health care services and public transportation deteriorate, the current Washington administration unapologetically embraces the values of economic Darwinism. In doing so, Obama and his cohorts reward its chief beneficiaries, the mega banks, financial industries and big business. Reinvigorated by the passing of tax cuts for the ultra rich, the right-wing Republican Party take over of the House of Representatives along with a number of state governorships are now launching an ongoing successful attack on the welfare state, workers, students, and those who dare speak out against such attacks. Neoliberalism in zombie-like fashion is once again imposing its values, social relations and forms of social death upon all aspects of civic life.(1)

For over 30 years, the North American public has been reared on a neoliberal dystopian vision that legitimates itself through the largely unchallenged claim that there are no alternatives to a hyper-market-driven society, that economic growth should not be constrained by considerations of social costs or moral responsibility and that democracy and capitalism are virtually synonymous. At the heart of this market rationality is an egocentric philosophy and a culture of cruelty that sells off public goods and services to the highest bidders in the private sector, while simultaneously dismantling those public spheres, social protections and institutions serving the public good. As economic power succeeds in detaching itself from government regulations, a new global financial class reasserts the prerogatives of capital and systemically destroys those public spheres – including the university – that traditionally advocated for social equality and an educated citizenry as the fundamental conditions for a viable democracy.

Despite our knowledge of the corrupt profiteering practices that instigated a global financial meltdown, free-market fundamentalism appears to be losing neither its claim to legitimacy nor its claims on democracy. On the contrary, in this new era in which we live, consumerism and profit making are defined as the essence of democracy, while freedom has been reconceived as the unrestricted ability of markets to govern economic relations free from government regulation or moral considerations. As the principle of economic deregulation gradually merges with a notion of unregulated self-interest, one consequence is that people, eager to protect what they now believe is their freedom, relinquish their power and democratic rights to unaccountable, unchecked and unabashed forms of authoritarian corporate and state control.

As a result of the triumph of corporate power over democratic values – made visible recently in the Citizens Unlimited Supreme Court case that eliminated all controls on corporate spending on political campaigns – the authority of the state is now used to defend the market and powerful financial interests while exercising a disciplinary force over the rest of society. Lending muscle to corporate initiatives, the state becomes largely responsible for managing and expanding mechanisms of control, containment and punishment over a vast number of public institutions. As the social contract comes under sustained attack, the model of the prison emerges as a core institution and mode of governance under the neoliberal state. Agencies and services that once offered relief and hope to the disadvantaged are being replaced with a police presence and other elements of the criminal justice system.

The list of casualties in the war being waged against democracy is long. We are witnessing the ongoing privatization of public schools, health care, prisons, transportation, the military, public airwaves, public lands, and other crucial elements of the commons along with the undermining of our most basic civil liberties. The bridges between public and private life are being dismantled, while the market – with its disregard for the complex web of systemic forces that bear down on people’s lives, not to mention its disregard for human life itself – becomes the template for structuring all social relations.

People who were once viewed as facing dire problems in need of state intervention and social protection are now seen as a problem threatening society. This becomes clear when the war on poverty is transformed into a war against the poor, when the plight of the homeless is defined less as a political and economic issue in need of social reform than as a matter of law and order, or when the government budgets for prison construction eclipse budgets for higher education. Poor minority youth, immigrants, and other disposable populations now become the flash point that collapses moral and political taxonomies in the face of a state-grown disciplinary apparatus. Indeed, the transformation of the social state into the corporate-controlled punishing state is made startlingly clear when young people, to paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois, become problem people rather than people who face problems. Already disenfranchised by virtue of their age, young people are under assault today in ways that are entirely new because they now face a world that is far more dangerous than at any other time in recent history. While dystopian fears about youth have perhaps always existed, they have intensified since the events of 9/11, as has the public’s understanding of youth as an unruly and unpredictable threat to law and order. This is made obvious by the many “get tough” policies that now render young people as criminals, while depriving them of basic health care, education and social services. Punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility as the most important modalities mediating the relationship of youth to the larger social order. As anthropologist Alain Bertho points out, when war and the criminalization of social problems become a mode of governance, “Youth is no longer considered the world’s future, but as a threat to its present. [For] youth, there is no longer any political discourse except for a disciplinary one.”(2) I now want to say something about my own youth as a measure against which to address the problems many young people face today.

Memories of Youth

Beneath the abstract codifying of youth around the discourses of law, medicine, psychology, employment, education and marketing statistics, there is the lived experience of being young. For me, youth invokes a repository of memories fueled by my own journey as a young person through an adult world which largely seemed to be in the way, a world held together by a web of disciplinary practices and restrictions that appeared at the time more oppressive than liberating. Dreams for young people living in my Smith Hill neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, were contained within a limited number of sites, all of which occupied an outlaw status in the adult world: the inner-city basketball court located in a housing project, which promised danger and fierce competition; the streets on which adults and youth collided as the police and parole officers harassed us endlessly. Lacking the security of a middle-class childhood, my friends and I seemed suspended in a society that neither accorded us a voice nor guaranteed economic independence. Identity didn’t come easy in my neighborhood. It was painfully clear to all of us that our identities were constructed out of daily battles waged around masculinity, the ability to mediate a terrain fraught with violence and the need to find an anchor through which to negotiate a culture in which life was fast and short-lived. I grew up amid the motion and force of mostly white and black working-class male bodies – bodies asserting their physical strength as one of the few resources we had control over. Job or no job, one forever felt the primacy of the body: the body flying through the rarefied air of the neighborhood gym in a kind of sleek and stylized performance; the body furtive and cool, existing on the margins of society filled with the possibility of instant pleasure and relief, or tense and anticipating the danger and risk; the body bent by the weight of grueling labor.

Both my race and class positioned me in turf wars marked by street codes that were both feared and respected. Racism ran deep in that neighborhood and no one was left untouched by it. But identities are always in transit: they mutate, change and often become more complicated as a result of chance encounters, traumatic events, or unexpected collisions. At the age of eight, I became a shoeshine boy and staked out a route populated by the city’s black and white nightclubs. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights I started my route about 7:00 PM and got home around 12:00 AM. I loved going into the Celebrity Club and other bars, watching the adults dance, drink and steal furtive glances from each other. Most of all I loved the music. Billie Holiday, Fats Domino, Dinah Washington, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Little Richard played in the background against the sounds of glasses clinking and men and women talking – talking as if their only chance to come alive was compressed into the time they spent in the club. Whenever I finished my route, I had to navigate a dangerous set of streets to get back home. I learned how to talk, negotiate and defend myself along that route. I was too skinny as a kid to be a tough guy; I had to learn a street code that was funny but smart, fast but not insulting. That’s when my body and head started working together. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was learning fast that the working of the intellect was as powerful a weapon as the body itself. In spite of what I learned in that neighborhood, about the virtues of a kind of militant masculinity, I had to forge a different understanding about the relationship between my body and mind – one in which the body was only one resource for surviving.

I saw a lot in that neighborhood and I couldn’t seem to learn enough to make sense of it or escape its pull. Peer groups formed early and kids ruptured all but the most necessary forms of dependence on their parents at a very young age. I really only saw my parents when I went home to eat or sleep. All of the youth left home too early to notice the loss until later in life when we became adults or parents ourselves. Home was neither a source of comfort nor a respite from the outside world. The neighborhood was my real home and my friends provided the sanctuary for talk and security along with a cool indifference – none of us looked forward to the future. And as for the present, it was all we had. It made little sense to invest in a future that for many of my friends either ended too early or pointed to the dreaded possibility of becoming an adult, which usually meant working in a boring job by day and hanging out in the local bar by night.

My youth was lived through class formations that I felt were largely viewed by others as an outlaw culture. Schools, hospitals, community centers and, surely. middle-class social spaces interpreted us as outsiders, alien and other because we were from the wrong class and had the wrong kind of cultural capital. As working-class youth, we were defined through our deficits. Class marked us as poor, inferior, linguistically inadequate and often dangerous. Our bodies were more valued than our minds and the only way to survive was to deny one’s voice, experience and location as working-class youth. We were feared and denigrated more than we were affirmed, and the reality of being part of an outlaw culture penetrated us with an awareness that we could hardly navigate critically or theoretically, but felt in every fiber of our being.

We lacked the political vocabulary and insight that would have enabled us to see the contradiction among the brutal racism, violence and sexism that marked our lives and our constant attempts to push against the grain by investing in the pleasures of body, the warmth of solidarity and the appropriation of neighborhood spaces as outlaw publics. As kids, we were border crossers and had to learn to negotiate the power, violence and cruelty of the dominant culture through our own lived histories, restricted languages and narrow cultural experiences. Recognizing our fugitive status in all of the dominant institutions in which we found ourselves, we were suspicious and sometimes vengeful of what we didn’t have or how we were left out of the representations that seemed to define American youth in the 1950s and early 1960s. We listened to Etta James and hated both the music of Pat Boone and the cultural capital that for us was synonymous with golf, tennis and prep schools. We lost ourselves in the grittiness of working-class neighborhood gyms, abandoned cars and street corners that offered a haven for escape, but also invited police surveillance and brutality. Being part of an outlaw culture meant that we lived almost exclusively on the margins of a life that was not of our choosing. We bore witness to the future only to escape into the present, and the present never stopped pulsating. Like most marginalized youth cultures, we were time bound. The memory work, for me, would have to come later. But when it came, it offered me a newfound appreciation of what I learned in those neighborhoods about solidarity, trust, friendship, sacrifice and, most of all, individual and collective struggle.

I eventually left my neighborhood, but it was nothing less than a historical accident that allowed me to leave. I never took the requisite tests to apply to a four-year college. When high school graduation came around, I was offered a basketball scholarship to a junior college in Worcester, Massachusetts. After violating too many rules and drinking more than I should have, I left school and went back to my old neighborhood hangouts. But my friends’ lives had already changed. Their youth had left them and they now had families and lousy jobs and spent a lot of time in the neighborhood bar, waiting for a quick hit at the racetrack or the promise of a good disability scheme. After working for two years at odd jobs, I managed to play in a widely publicized basketball tournament and did well enough to attract the attention of a few coaches who tried to recruit me. Following their advice, I took the SATs and scored high enough to qualify for entrance into a small college in Maine that offered me a basketball scholarship. While in school, I took on a couple of jobs to help finance my education and eventually graduated with a teaching degree in secondary education.

In the grand scheme of things, I was lucky; I experienced my youth at a time when post-war America was imbued with optimism. Privileged by gender and race, I was able to make my way out of an existence that otherwise would have been bound by class and material deprivation. Given the growing gap between the rich and the poor, a growing culture of cruelty and the dismantling of the social state, I don’t believe youth today will have the same opportunities I had, although undoubtedly they will have struggles similar to mine and much more.

Today’s young people inhabit an age of unprecedented symbolic, material and institutional violence – an age of grotesque irresponsibility, unrestrained greed and unchecked individualism. The crisis of youth is a crisis rooted in society’s loss of history, memory and ethical responsibility – something I have tried to counter by bearing witness to my own youth, not simply as a personal narrative, but as a mode of analysis that seeks to connect private troubles to larger social issues. I believe that the practices of witnessing and testimony lie at the heart of what it means to teach and to learn. The practices of witnessing and testimony mean speaking and listening to the stories of others as part of both an ethical response to the narratives of the past and a broader responsibility to engage the present. Without them, we lose the capacity both to reflect upon our own shifting locations, including how our past actions implicate us, and to act upon those reflections. We lose an important locus for identification through which ourselves and others can begin to understand the complexity and significance of the diverse conditions that have shaped our individual and collective histories.

Today, besides a growing inability to translate private matters into public concerns, what is also being lost is the very idea of the public good, the notion of connecting learning to social change and developing modes of civic courage infused by the principles of social justice. Under the regime of a ruthless economic Darwinism, which emphasizes a survival-of-the- fittest ethic, concepts and practices of community and solidarity have been replaced by a world of cutthroat politics, financial greed, media spectacles and a rabid consumerism. It seems that the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is right in claiming, “Visions have nowadays fallen into disrepute and we tend to be proud of what we should be ashamed of.” Politics has become an extension of war, just as the spectacle of extreme violence increasingly shapes both popular culture and a culture of cruelty that promotes shared fears and an escape from any sense of social responsibility toward others. How else to explain a recent incident in which rural Tennessee firefighters “looked on as a house burned because the family who lived in it had not paid the $75 annual fire-protection fee.”(3) The firemen joked and laughed as the owner of the home offered to pay the fee while desperately pleading for their help. The home was destroyed along with three dogs trapped inside the burning trailer. Incidents such as this are not lost on young people today, who learn quickly that their fate is solely a matter of individual survival, as if controlled by a natural law of sorts that has more to do with survival instincts than with modes of collective reasoning, social solidarity and the formation of a sustainable democratic society. “Reality TV’s” mantra of “war of all against all” brings home the lesson that punishment is the norm and reward the exception. Unfortunately, it no longer mimics reality; it is the new reality.

The War Against Youth

The intensifying assault on young people today can be understood through the related concepts of “soft war” and “hard war.” The idea of soft war considers the changing conditions of youth within the relentless expansion of a global market society. Partnered with a massive advertising machinery, the soft war targets all children and youth, devaluing them by treating them as yet another “market” to be commodified and exploited and conscripting them into the system through creating a new generation of consuming subjects. This low intensity war is waged by a variety of corporate institutions through the educational force of a culture that commercializes every aspect of kids’ lives, using the Internet and various social networks along with the new media technologies such as cell phones to immerse young people in the world of mass consumption in ways more direct and expansive than anything we have seen in the past. The influence of the new screen and electronic culture on young peoples’ habits is disturbing. For instance, a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people ages 8 to 18 now spend more than seven and a half hours a day with smart phones, computers, televisions, and other electronic devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago.(4) When you add the additional time youth spend texting, talking on their cell phones and doing multiple tasks at once, such as “watching TV while updating Facebook – the number rises to 11 hours of total media content each day.”(5) There is a greater risk here than what seems to be emerging as a new form of attention deficit disorder, one in which youth avoid the time necessary for thoughtful analysis and engaged modes of reading. There is also the issue of how this media is conscripting an entire generation into a world of consumerism in which commodities and brand loyalty become the most important markers of identity and primary frameworks for mediating one’s relationship to the world.

As public spheres are replaced by commercialized spheres and public time is replaced by corporate time through the use of fast-paced technologies that penetrate every aspect of kids’ lives, many young people are commercially carpet bombed endlessly and feel like they are caught on a consumerist treadmill that speeds up and never slows down. The stark reality here is that the corporate media are being used to reshape kids’ identities into that of consumers rather than citizens. And as Bauman points out, “life and politics are now shaped after the likeness of the means and objects of consumption.” Young people are not being invited to participate in a dialogue of what ails society; they are bombarded with images and messages that multimedia corporate giants want them to see and hear – and go to the great lengths and expense conducting all kinds of marketing and psychological research to ensure that kids will accept them. Kids may think they are immune to the incessant call to “buy, buy, buy” and to think only about “me, me, me,” but what is actually happening is a selective elimination and reordering of the possible modes of political, social and ethical vocabularies made available to youth. Corporations have hit gold with the new media and can inundate young people directly with their market-driven values, desires and identities, all of which fly under the radar, escaping the watchful eyes and interventions of concerned parents and other adults.

The hard war is more serious and dangerous for certain young people and refers to the harshest elements of a growing crime-control complex that increasingly governs poor minority youth through a logic of punishment, surveillance and control. The youth targeted by its punitive measures are often the young people who, like their parents, are viewed as failed consumers and can only afford to live on the margins of a commercial culture of excess that eagerly takes in anybody with money, resources and leisure time to spare. Or they are young people considered to be troublesome and often disposable by virtue of their ethnicity, race and class. The imprint of the youth crime-control complex can be traced in the increasingly popular practice of organizing schools through disciplinary practices that subject students to constant surveillance through high-tech security devices, while imposing on them harsh and often thoughtless zero-tolerance policies that closely resemble the culture of the criminal justice system. In this instance, the corporate state is transformed into a punishing state and vulnerable segments of the youth population become the object of a new mode of governance based on the crudest forms of disciplinary control.

Poor minority youth are not just excluded from “the American dream,” but become utterly redundant and disposable, waste products of a society that no longer considers them of any value. Such youth, already facing forms of racial- and class-based exclusion, now experience a kind of social death as they are pushed out of schools, denied job training opportunities, subjected to rigorous modes of surveillance and criminal sanctions and viewed less as chronically disadvantaged than as flawed consumers and civic felons. No longer tracked into either high- or low-achievement classes, many of these youth are now tracked right out of school into the juvenile criminal justice system. Under such circumstances, matters of survival and disposability become central to how we think about and imagine not just politics, but the everyday existence of poor white, Aboriginal, immigrant and minority youth. Too many young people are not completing high school, but are instead bearing the brunt of a system that leaves them uneducated and jobless, and ultimately offers them one of the few options available for people who no longer have available roles to play as producers or consumers – either poverty or prison.

Not only have social safety nets and protections unraveled in the last 30 years, but the suffering and hardships many children face have been greatly amplified by both the economic crisis and the austerity policies that are being currently implemented, with little justification, in the current historical moment. What is happening among the marginalized and socially disadvantaged people in the United States should serve as a dire warning to policymakers. Current statistics paint a bleak picture for young people in the United States: 1. 5 million are unemployed, which marks a 17-year high; 12.5 million are without food; and a number of unsettling reports indicate that the number of children living in poverty will rise to “nearly 17 million by the end of the [2011].”(6) The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reported that there are over a million homeless students in the United States.(7) A 2009 study counted nearly 6. 2 million high school dropouts.(8) Increasingly, kids are forced to inhabit a rough world where childhood is nonexistent, crushed under the heavy material and existential burdens they are forced to bear.

In what amounts to a national disgrace, one out of every five American children lives in poverty. At the same time, 60 percent of all corporations paid no taxes last year. These figures become even more alarming when analyzed through the harsh realities of economic deprivation and persistent racial disadvantage. Nearly half of all US children and 90 percent of black youngsters will be on food stamps at some point during childhood.(9) Nearly one in every ten male high school dropouts in the United States is in either jail or juvenile detention.(10) For African-American male youth, the incarceration rate jumps to one in four high school dropouts ending up in prison.(11) What becomes clear is that social marginalization, poverty, low levels of education and high unemployment are increasingly driving staggering incarceration rates for young people, with some youth clearly being affected more than others. This leads us back to the youth crime-control complex.

The Youth Crime-Control Complex

As social problems are increasingly criminalized and the social state is replaced by the punishing state, young people are often subjected to intolerable conditions that inflict irreparable harm on their minds and bodies. Subject to a coming-of-age crisis marked by an ever expanding police order with its paranoid machinery of security, containment and criminalization, many youth marginalized by class and race have become the most visible symbol indicting a society that seems incapable of thinking critically about education, justice and democracy. Within the narrow registers of punishment and crime management, there is no political or moral vocabulary for either recognizing the systemic economic, social and educational problems that young people face or for addressing what it means for society to invest seriously in the future of young people, especially poor minority youth. Instead of being viewed as impoverished, minority youth are seen as lazy and shiftless; instead of being understood in terms of how badly they are served by failing schools, many poor minority youth are labeled as uneducable and pushed out of schools. Against the idealistic rhetoric of a government that claims it venerates young people, lies the reality of a society that increasingly views youth through the optic of law and order, a society that appears all too willing to treat youth as criminals and, when necessary, make them “disappear” into the farthest reaches of the carceral state. Under such circumstances, the administration of schools and social services has given way to modes of confinement whose purpose is to ensure “custody and control.”(12)

One consequence of the punishment focus of these policies is the elimination of intervention programs, which has the effect of increasing the number of youth in prisons and keeping them there for longer periods of time. And when these young people are placed in adult prisons, the outcome is even more disturbing. Youth in adult prisons are “five times as likely to be raped, twice as likely to be beaten and eight times [more] likely to commit suicide than adults in the adult prison system.”(13) Juvenile detention centers are not much better. According to Professor Barry Feld, “The daily reality of juveniles confined in many ‘treatment’ facilities is one of violence, predatory behavior and punitive incarceration.”(14) In some juvenile facilities, young people are abused and tortured in a manner associated with the treatment detainees have received at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and various detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, the United States Department of Justice reported in 2009 that children at four juvenile detention centers in New York were often severely abused and beaten, leading to concussions, broken teeth and bone fractures.(15) The use of excessive force by the staff was indiscriminate and ruthlessly applied. According to one report, “Anything from sneaking an extra cookie to initiating a fistfight may result in full prone restraint with handcuffs.”(16) In one instance, a boy simply glared at a staff member and for that infraction was put into a sitting restraint. His arms were pulled behind his back with such force that his collarbone, which had been previously injured, was broken.

Alarming physical and psychological violence directed at youth is also increasingly visible in many public schools across the United States. As the logic of the market and crime control frame a number of school policies, students are now subjected to zero-tolerance rules that are used primarily to humiliate, punish, repress and exclude them.(17) For instance, Porsche, a fourth-grade student at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, elementary school, was yanked out of class, handcuffed, taken to the police station and held for eight hours for bringing a pair of eight-inch scissors to school. She had been using the scissors to work on a school project at home. School district officials acknowledged that the girl was not using the scissors as a weapon or threatening anyone with them, but scissors qualified as a potential weapon under state law. In another widely distributed news story accompanied by a disturbing video, a school-based police officer brutally beat a 15-year-old special needs student because his shirt was not tucked into his pants.(18) What are we to make of a society that allows the police to come into a school and arrest, handcuff and haul off a 12-year-old student for doodling on her desk? Even worse, where is the public outrage over a school system that allows a five-year-old kindergarten pupil to be handcuffed and sent to a hospital psychiatric ward for being unruly in a classroom?

What does it mean when an 11-year-old autistic and cognitively impaired child is repeatedly abused in school by both teachers and security guards?(19) Where is the public outrage when two police officers called to a day care center in central Indiana to handle an unruly ten-year-old decide to taser the child and slap him in the mouth – this following another widely reported incident in which a police officer in Arkansas used a stun gun to control an allegedly out-of-control ten-year-old girl? One public response came from Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International Inc. , who insisted that a “Stun gun can be safely used on children.”(20) Sadly, this is but a small sampling of the ways in which children are being punished instead of educated in American schools, especially inner-city schools. All of these examples point to the growing disregard American society has for young people and the number of institutions willing to employ a crime-and-punishment mentality that constitutes not only a crisis of politics, but the emergence of new politics of educating and governing through crime. The culture of punishment that now permeates American schools not only derails the project of critical education and democracy in a number of ways, but it also makes poor white and minority youth disposable. This is a culture that favors rage, anger and vengeance over compassion, dialogue and social investments. As the writer Michelle Brown points out, the punishing state increasingly provides the framing logic not simply for urban schools, but also “for the sites and centers of middle-class life – offices, workplaces, universities, medical centers, housing and airports. “

As the culture of fear, crime and repression embraces public schools, the culture of schooling takes on the obscene and violent contours one associates with the “all [too] familiar procedures of efficient prison management,”(22) including unannounced locker searches, armed police patrolling the corridors, mandatory drug testing and the ever present body of lockdown security devices such as metal detectors, X-ray machines, surveillance cameras and other technologies of fear and control. The sociologist Randall Beger is right in suggesting that the new “security culture in public schools [has] turned them into ‘learning prisons’ where the students unwittingly become ‘guinea pigs’ to test the latest security devices.”(23) As schools increasingly resemble zones of abandonment, trust and respect give way to fear, disdain and suspicion, creating an environment in which critical education withers. Unfortunately, policies and practices designed to foster exclusion and mete out shame and humiliation make it easier for young people to look upon their society and their futures with suspicion and despair, rather than anticipation and hope.

What is horrifying about the plight of youth today is not just the severity of deprivations and violence they experience daily, but also how they have been forced to view the world and redefine the nature of their own childhood within the borders of hopelessness, cruelty and despair. There is little sense of a hopeful future lying just beyond highly policed spaces of containment. An entire generation of youth will not have access to decent jobs, the material comforts or the security available to previous generations. These children are a new generation of youth who have to think, act and talk like adults; worry about their families, which may be headed by a single parent or two out of work and searching for a job; wonder how they are going to get the money to buy food and how long it will take to see a doctor in case of illness. These children are no longer confined to so-called ghettoes. As the burgeoning landscapes of poverty and despair increasingly find expression in our cities, suburbs and rural areas, these children make their presence felt – they are too many to ignore or hide away in the usually sequestered and invisible spaces of disposability. They constitute a new and more unsettling scene of suffering, one that reveals not only the vast and destabilizing inequalities in our economic landscape, but also portends a future that has no purchase on the hope that characterizes a vibrant democracy.

Defending Youth and Democracy in the 21st Century

At this moment in history, it is more necessary than ever to register youth as a central theoretical, moral and political concern. American society has been punishing children for a long time and it is getting worse. Injustice and inequality have a long legacy in the United States and its most punishing modes and lethal effects have been largely directed against immigrant and minority children. Today, youth even as a category of thought seems to be removed from the inventory of social concerns and the list of cherished public assets. Increasingly viewed as yet another social burden, youth are no longer included in a discourse about the promise of a better future. Instead, they are now considered part of a disposable population whose presence threatens to recall repressed collective memories of adult responsibility. The shameful condition of minority youth exposes not only their unbearable victimization, but also those larger social and political forces that speak to the callous hardening of a society that actively produces the needless suffering and death of its children. The moral nihilism of a market society, the move from a welfare to a warfare state, the growing poverty rates, the resegregation of schools by race and class, the persistent dumbing down of learning as a result of high-stakes testing, the attack on teachers’ bargaining rights, the collapse of education into training and the rise of a pernicious corporate state work together to numb us to the suffering of others, especially children.

The deteriorating state of youth may be the most serious challenge facing educators, social workers, youth workers, and others in the 21st century. It is a struggle that demands a new understanding of politics, one that is infused not only with the language of critique, but also the discourse of possibility. It is a struggle that demands that we think beyond the given, imagine the unimaginable and combine the lofty ideals of democracy with a willingness to fight for its realization. But this is not a fight we can win through individual struggles or fragmented political movements. It demands new modes of solidarity, new political organizations and a powerful social movement capable of uniting diverse political interests and groups. It is a struggle that is as educational as it is political. It is also a struggle that is as necessary as it is urgent. And the struggle for the future of young people must be at the center of this struggle.

One way of addressing our collapsing intellectual and moral visions regarding young people is to imagine those policies, values, opportunities and social relations that both invoke adult responsibility and reinforce the ethical imperative to provide young people, especially those marginalized by race and class, with the economic, social and educational conditions that make life livable and the future sustainable. Clearly, the issue at stake here is not a one-off program or temporary fix, but real structural reforms. At the very least, as legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has argued, this suggests fighting for a child welfare system that would reduce “family poverty by increasing the minimum wage,” and advocating for legislation that would provide “a guaranteed income … high-quality subsidized child care, preschool education and paid parental leaves for all families.”(24) Young people need a federally funded job creation program and wage subsidies that would provide year-round employment for out-of-school youth and summer jobs that target in-school low-income youth. Public and higher education, increasingly shaped by corporate and instrumental values, must be reclaimed as democratic public spheres committed to teaching young people about how to govern rather than merely be governed or simply be trained for the workplace. And they must be funded with the same parity as we fund national defense, and they should be affordable for all students, but especially for those consigned to the margins of society.

We need to get security forces out of schools, reduce spending for prisons and wars and hire more teachers, support staff and community people in order to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. To make life livable for young people and others, basic supports for everybody must be guaranteed, including provisions for affordable housing. But, of course, none of this will take place unless the institutions, social relations and values that legitimate and reproduce current levels of inequality, power and human suffering under the present structure of casino capitalism are dismantled. The widening gap between the rich and the poor has to be addressed if young people are to have a viable future.

Clearly, any society that endorses market principles as a template for shaping all aspects of social life and cares more about the accumulation of capital than it does about the fate of young people is in trouble. Next to the needs of the market place, life has become cheap, if not irrelevant. We have lived too long with governments and institutions that make lofty claims to democracy, while selectively punishing those considered expendable – in prisons, public schools, foster care institutions and urban slums.

If the crucial problems facing young people are to be taken seriously, then the political, economic and institutional conditions that both legitimate and sustain a shameful attack on youth have to be made visible, open to challenge and transformed. This can only happen by refusing the social amnesia that coincides with obsessive individualism and utterly rejecting the equation of a free-market system with democracy. We need to imagine more democratic forms of agency and the public spheres capable of producing them. We need to collectively struggle to create the formative cultures necessary for young people to become critical thinkers, capable of putting existing institutions into question, holding power accountable and struggling to change society when necessary. That is, we need a generation of young people who are both educated to struggle for the promises of a democracy to come and capable of active participation in the process of governing. Such a struggle demands that we think beyond the given, imagine the unimaginable and combine the lofty ideals of democracy with a willingness to fight for its realization. But such a fight demands new modes of solidarity, new political organizations and a powerful social movement capable of uniting diverse political interests and groups. It is a struggle that is as educational as it is political. It is also a struggle that is as necessary as it is urgent. We may live in dark times, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, but history is open, and the space of the possible is larger than the one currently on display.


1. Some useful sources on neoliberalism include: Lisa Duggan, “The Twilight of Equality” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Wendy Brown, “Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston, eds. “Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader” (London: Pluto Press, 2005); Neil Smith, “The Endgame of Globalization” (New York: Routledge, 2005); Aihwa Ong, “Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Randy Martin, “An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” (New York: Knopf, 2007); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy, “The Crisis of Neoliberalism” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

2. Quoted in Jean-Marie Durand, “For Youth: A Disciplinary Discourse Only,” Truthout (November 15, 2009), translation, Leslie Thatcher. Online here.

3. Adam Cohen, “Should Tennessee Fireman Have Let the House Burn?” Time with CNN (October 13, 2010).

4. Tamar Lewin, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online,” New York Times (January 20, 2010), p. A1.

5. C. Christine, “Kaiser Study: Kids 8 to 18 Spend More Than Seven Hours a Day With Media,” Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning: MacArthur Foundation (January 21, 2010). Online here.

6. Quoted in Bob Herbert, “Children in Peril,” New York Times (April 21, 2009), p. A25.

7. Erik Eckholm, “Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools,” New York Times (September 6, 2009), p. A1.

8. Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, “Left Behind in America: The Nation’s Dropout Crisis” (May 5, 2009). Online here.

9. Lindsey Tanner, “Half of US Kids Will Get Food Stamps, Study Says,” Chicago Tribune (November 2, 2009), online here.

10. Andrew Sum et al., “The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School: Joblessness and Jailing for High School Dropouts and the High Cost for Taxpayers” (Boston: Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University, October 2009). Online here.

11. Ibid.

12. Zygmunt Bauman, “Wasted Lives” (London: Polity Press, 2004), p.82.

13. Quoted in Evelyn Nieves, “California Proposal Toughens Penalties for Young Criminals,” New York Times (March 6, 2000), pp.A1, A15.

14. Barry Feld, “Criminalizing the American Juvenile Court,” Crime and Justice 17 (1993), p.251.

15. US Department of Justice, “Report: Investigation of the Lansing Residential Center,” Louis Gossett, Jr.Residential Center, Tryon Residential Center and Tryon Girls Center (Washington, DC: US Government, 2009). Online here.

16. US Department of Justice, “Report: Investigation of the Lansing Residential Center.” See also Nicholas Confessore, “4 Youth Prisons in New York Used Excessive Force,” New York Times (August 25, 2009), p.A1.

17. For an extensive treatment of zero tolerance laws and the militarization of schools, see Christopher Robbins, “Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling” (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008); and Kenneth Saltman and David Gabbard, eds., “Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools” (New York: Routledge, 2003).

18. Henry A.Giroux, “Brutalizing Kids: Painful Lessons in the Pedagogy of School Violence,” Truthout (October 8, 2009). Online here.

19. Beth Germano, “Worcester Teacher Accused of Abusing Autistic Boy,” The Autism News (March 23, 2010). Online here.

20 .Carly Everson, “Ind.Officer Uses Stun Gun on Unruly 10-Year old,” AP News (April 3, 2010). Online here.

21. Jonathan Simon, “Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.5.

22. Zygmunt Bauman, “Wasted Lives” (London: Polity Press, 2004), p.82.

23. Beger, “Expansion of Police Power,” p.120.

24. Dorothy Roberts, “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare” (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2008), p.268.

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