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November 25, 2008 -- Truthout (US)

Disposable Youth In A Suspect Society

A Challenge For The Obama Administration

By: Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


While there is little question that the United States -- with its burgeoning police state, its infamous title as the world leader in jailing its own citizens, and its history of foreign and domestic "torture factories" [1] -- has moved into lockdown (and lockout) mode both at home and abroad, it is a mistake to assume that the Bush administration is solely responsible for transforming the United States to the degree that it has now become unrecognizable to itself as a democratic nation. Such claims risk reducing the serious social ills now plaguing the United States to the reactionary policies of the Bush regime -- a move which allows for complacency in light of the potentially inflated hopes raised by Barack Obama's successful bid for the presidency. What the United States has become in the last decade suggests less of a rupture than an intensification of a number of already existing political, economic, and social forces that since the late 1970s have unleashed the repressive anti-democratic tendencies lurking beneath the damaged heritage of democratic ideals.

What marks the present state of American "democracy" is the uniquely bipolar nature of the degenerative assault on the body politic, which combines elements of unprecedented greed and fanatical capitalism with a new kind of politics more ruthless and savage in its willingness to abandon -- even vilify -- those individuals and groups now rendered disposable within "new geographies of exclusion and landscapes of wealth" [2] that mark the neoliberal new world order. Nowhere is this assault more evident than in what might be called the "war on youth," a war that not only attempts to erase the democratic legacies of the past, but disavows any commitment to the future.

Any discourse about the future has to begin with the issue of youth because young people embody the projected dreams, desires, and commitment of a society's obligations to the future. In many respects, youth not only register symbolically the importance of modernity's claim to progress; they also affirm the importance of the liberal democratic tradition of the social contract in which adult responsibility is mediated through a willingness to fight for the rights of children, enact reforms that invest in their future, and provide the educational conditions necessary for them to make use of the freedoms they have while learning how to be critical citizens. Within such a modernist project, democracy is linked to the well-being of youth, while the status of how a society imagines democracy and its future is contingent on how it views its responsibility towards future generations. But the category of youth does more than affirm modernity's social contract, rooted in a conception of the future in which adult commitment and intergenerational solidarity are articulated as a vital public service; it also affirms those representations, images, vocabularies, values, and social relations central to a politics capable of both defending vital institutions as a public good and contributing to the quality of public life.

Yet as the twenty-first century unfolds, it is not at all clear that the American public and government believe any longer in youth, the future, or the social contract, even in its minimalist version. Since the 1980s, the prevailing market inspired discourse has argued that there is no such thing as society and, indeed, following that nefarious pronouncement, institutions committed to public welfare, especially for young people, have been disappearing ever since. Those of us who, against the prevailing common sense, believe that the ultimate test of morality resides in what a society does for its children cannot help but acknowledge that if we take this standard seriously, American society has deeply failed its children and its commitment to democracy.

At stake here is not merely how American culture is redefining the meaning of youth, but how it constructs children in relation to a future devoid of the moral and political obligations of citizenship, social responsibility, and democracy. Caught up in an age of increasing despair, uncertainty, and the quagmire of a global financial collapse, youth no longer appear to inspire adults to reaffirm their commitment to a public discourse that envisions a future in which human suffering is diminished while the general welfare of society is increased. Constructed primarily within the language of the market and the increasingly conservative politics of a corporate dominated media culture, contemporary youth appear unable to constitute themselves through a defining generational referent that gives them a sense of distinctiveness and vision, as did the generation of youth in the 1960s. The relations between youth and adults have always been marked by strained generational and ideological struggles, but the new economic and social conditions that youth face today, along with a callous indifference to their spiritual and material needs, suggest a qualitatively different attitude on the part of many adults toward American youth -- one that indicates that the young, especially under the Bush administration, have become our lowest national priority. Put bluntly, American society at present exudes both a deep-rooted hostility and chilling indifference toward youth, reinforcing the dismal conditions that young people are increasingly living under.

The hard currency of human suffering that impacts children is evident in some astounding statistics that suggest a profound moral and political contradiction at the heart of our culture: for example, the rate of child poverty is currently at 17.4 percent, boosting the number of poor children to 13 million. In addition, about one in three severely poor people are under age 17. Moreover, children make up 26 percent of the total population but constitute an astounding 39 percent of the poor. Just as alarming as this is the fact that 9.4 million children in America lack health insurance and millions lack affordable child care and decent early childhood education. Sadly, the United States ranks first in billionaires and defense expenditures and yet ranks an appalling twenty-fifth in infant mortality. As we might expect, behind these grave statistics lies a series of decisions that favor economically those already advantaged at the expense of the young. Savage cuts to education, nutritional assistance for impoverished mothers, veterans' medical care, and basic scientific research, are often cynically administered to help fund tax cuts for the already inordinately rich.

This inversion of the government's responsibility to protect public goods from private threats further reveals itself in the privatization of social problems and the vilification of those who fail to thrive in this vastly iniquitous social order. Too many youth within this degraded economic, political, and cultural geography occupy a "dead zone" in which the spectacle of commodification exists alongside the imposing threat of massive debt, bankruptcy, the prison-industrial complex, and the elimination of basic civil liberties. Indeed, we have an entire generation of unskilled and displaced youth who have been expelled from shrinking markets, blue-collar jobs, and the limited political power granted to the middle-class consumer. Rather than investing in the public good and solving social problems, the state now punishes those who are caught in the downward spiral of its economic policies. Punishment, incarceration, and surveillance represent the new face of governance. Consequently, the implied contract between the social state and its citizens has been broken, and social guarantees for youth, as well as civic obligations to the future, have vanished from the public agenda. Within this utterly privatizing market discourse alcoholism, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, and illiteracy are not viewed as social issues, but rather as individual problems -- that is, such problems are viewed as the result of a character flaw or a personal failing and in too many cases such problems are criminalized.

Poor black youth are especially disadvantaged. Not only do a mere 42 percent who enter high school actually graduate, but they are increasingly jobless in an economy that does not need their labor. Marked as a surplus and disposable population, "black American males inhabit a universe in which joblessness is frequently the norm [and that] over the past few years, the percentage of black male high school graduates in their 20s who were jobless has ranged from well over a third to roughly 50 percent.... For dropouts, the rates of joblessness are staggering. For black males who left high school without a diploma, the real jobless rate at various times over the past few years has ranged from 59 percent to a breathtaking 72 percent." [3] For many poor youth of color, punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility as the most important modalities mediating the relationship of youth to the larger social order. For instance, a "Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime ... A Latino boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 6 chance of going to prison in his lifetime.... [and] although they represent just 39 percent of the US juvenile population, minority youth represent 60 percent of committed youth." [4]

Youth within the last two decades are increasingly represented in the media as a source of trouble rather than as a resource for investing in the future and are increasingly treated as either a disposable population, cannon fodder for barbaric wars abroad, or defined as the source of most of society's problems. As Lawrence Grossberg points out, "It has become common to think of kids as a threat to the existing social order and for kids to be blamed for the problems they experience. We slide from kids in trouble, kids have problems, and kids are threatened, to kids as trouble, kids as problems, and kids as threatening." [5] While youth, particularly those of color, are increasingly associated in the media and by dominant politicians with a rising crime wave, what is really at stake in this discourse is a punishment wave, one that reveals a society that does not know how to address those social problems that undercut any viable sense of agency, possibility, and future for many young people. In spite of the fact that crime continues to decline among youth in the United States, the popular media still represents young people as violent and threatening. When youth are addressed in a more complex term they are either viewed merely as commodities, markets, or simply self-indulgent and irresponsible. Then again, in a society in which politicians and the marketplace can imagine youth only as either consumers, objects, or billboards to sell sexuality, beauty products, music, athletic gear, clothes, and a host of other products, it is not surprising that young people can be so easily misrepresented.

Both the problems that young people face and the sites they inhabit are increasingly criminalized. Under the reign of ruthless neoliberal politics with its hyped up social Darwinism and theatre of cruelty, the popular demonization of the young now justifies responses to youth that were unthinkable 20 years ago, including criminalization and imprisonment, the prescription of psychotropic drugs, psychiatric confinement, and zero tolerance policies that model schools after prisons. School has become a model for a punishing society in which children who violate a rule as minor as a dress code infraction or slightly act out in class can be handcuffed, booked, and put in a jail cell. Such was the case in Florida when the police handcuffed and arrested 6-year-old Desre Watson, who was taken from her kindergarten school to the Highlander County jail where she was fingerprinted, photographed for a mug shot, and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. Her crime? The six-year old had thrown a tantrum in her kindergarten class. [6] Couple this type of domestic terrorism with the fact that the United States is the only country that voted against a recent United Nations resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children under the age of 16. [7] Moreover, it is currently the only nation that locks up child offenders for life. A report issued in 2007 by the Equal Justice Initiative claims that "there are 73 Americans serving [life] sentences for crimes they committed at 13 or 14." [8]

The Bush administration not only waged a war against youth, especially poor youth of color, it also offered no apologies because it was too arrogant and ruthless to imagine any resistance. For many young people, the future looks bleak, filled with the promise of low-paying, low-skilled jobs, the collapse of the welfare state, and, if you are a person of color and poor, the threat of either unemployment or incarceration. Youth have disappeared from the concerns of many adults, and certainly from the policies that have been hatched in Washington during the last twenty years. In his acceptance speech, President-elect Obama raised the issue of what kind of country young people would inherit if they lived to see the next century. The question provides an opening for taking the Obama administration seriously with regard to its commitment to young people. Young people need access to decent schools with more teachers; they need universal health care; they need food, decent housing, job training programs, and guaranteed employment. In other words, we need social movements that take seriously the challenge of dismantling the punishing state and reviving the social state so as to be able to provide young people not with incarceration and contempt, but with dignity and those economic, political, and social conditions that ensure they have a decent future. Surely, this is an issue that the Obama administration should be pushed to recognize and address. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant theologian, believed that the ultimate test of morality resided in what a society did for its children. If we take this standard seriously, American society has deeply failed its children and its commitment to democracy. The politics and culture of neoliberalism rest on the denial both of youth as a marker of the future and of the social responsibility entailed by an acceptance of this principle. In other words, the current crisis of American democracy can be measured in part by the fact that too many young people are poor, lack decent housing and health care, and attend decrepit schools filled with overworked and underpaid teachers. These youth, by all standards, deserve more in a country that historically prided itself on its level of democracy, liberty, and alleged equality for all citizens. We live in a historic moment of both crisis and possibility, one that presents educators, parents, artists, and others with the opportunity to take up the challenge of re-imagining civic engagement and social transformation, but these activities only have a chance of succeeding if we also defend and create those social, economic, and cultural conditions that enable the current generation of young people to nurture thoughtfulness, critical agency, compassion, and democracy itself.


[1] I have taken the term "torture factories" from Angela Y. Davis, "Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture" (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), p. 50. The United States has 2,319,258 people in jail or prison at the start of 2008 -- one out of every hundred and more than any other nation. See The Associated Press, "A First: 1 in 100 Americans Jailed," (February 28, 2008). Online:

[2] Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, "Introduction," in Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk. eds. "Evil Paradises" (New York: The New Press, 2007), p. ix.

[3] Bob Herbert, "The Danger Zone," New York Times (March 15, 2007), p. A25.

[4] These figures are taken from Summary Report, "America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline," Children's Defense Fund. online at:

[5] Lawrence Grossberg, "Caught in the Crossfire" (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2005), p. 16.

[6] "Kindergarten Girl Handcuffed, Arrested at Florida School," (March 30, 2007). Online:

[7-8] Adam Liptak, "Lifers as Teenagers, Now Seeking a Second Chance," The New York Times (October 17, 2007), p. A1.

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