[News] Youth and the Myth of Post-Racial Society Under Barack Obama

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Apr 29 11:20:50 EDT 2009

Youth and the Myth of Post-Racial Society Under Barack Obama
April 29, 2009 By Henry A. Giroux


Source: <http://www.truthout.org/042709A>t r u t h o u t

With the election of Barack Obama, it has been argued that not only 
will the social state be renewed in the spirit and legacy of the New 
Deal, but that the punishing racial state and its vast complex of 
disciplinary institutions will, if not come to an end, at least be 
significantly reformed.[1] From this perspective, Obama's presidency 
not only represents a post-racial victory, but also signals a new 
space of post-racial harmony. In assessing the Obama victory, Time 
Magazine columnist Joe Klein wrote, "It is a place where the primacy 
of racial identity - and this includes the old Jesse Jackson version 
of black racial identity - has been replaced by the celebration of 
pluralism, of cross-racial synergy."[2] Obama won the 2008 election 
because he was able to mobilize 95 percent of African-Americans, 
two-thirds of all Latinos and a large proportion of young people 
under the age of 30. At the same time, what is generally forgotten in 
the exuberance of this assessment is that the majority of white 
Americans voted for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket. While 
"post-racial" may mean less overt racism, the idea that we have moved 
into a post-racial period in American history is not merely premature 
- it is an act of willful denial and ignorance. Paul Ortiz puts it 
well in his comments on the myth of post-racialism:
The idea that we've moved to a post-racial period in American social 
history is undermined by an avalanche of recent events. Hurricane 
Katrina. The US Supreme Court's dismantling of Brown vs. Board of 
Education and the resegregation of American schools. The Clash of 
Civilizations thesis that promotes the idea of a War against Islam. 
The backlash facing immigrant workers. A grotesque prison industrial 
complex. [Moreover] ... [w]hile Americans were being robbed blind and 
primed for yet another bailout of the banks and investment sectors, 
they were treated to new evidence from Fox News and poverty experts 
that the great moral threats facing the nation were greedy union 
workers, black single mothers, Latino gang bangers and illegal immigrants.[3]

Missing from the exuberant claims that Americans are now living in a 
post-racial society is the historical legacy of a neoconservative 
revolution, officially launched in 1980 with the election of Ronald 
Reagan, and its ensuing racialist attacks on the welfare "Queens"; 
Bill Clinton's cheerful compliance in signing bills that expanded the 
punishing industries; and George W. Bush's "willingness to make 
punishment his preferred response to social problems."[4] In the last 
30 years, we have witnessed the emergence of policies that have 
amplified the power of the racial state and expanded its mechanisms 
of punishment and mass incarceration, the consequences of which are 
deeply racist - even as the state and its legal apparatuses insist on 
their own race neutrality.

The politics of racism has hardly disappeared from the landscape of 
American culture and the institutions that support it. Poor minority 
kids now find themselves on a fast tack extending from school to 
juvenile courts to prison. And the number of poor and minority kids, 
now aptly called the "recession generation" by Dr. Irwin Redlener, 
president of New York City's Children's Health fund, has increased 
from 13 million before the economic meltdown to an expected 17 
million by the end of the year. And who are these kids? These are the 
kids marginalized by race and class, who are largely seen either as a 
drain on the economy or stand in the way of market freedoms, free 
trade, consumerism and the whitewashed fantasies of a cleansed, 
Disneyfied social order. These are kids who, not only have to fend 
for themselves in the face of life's tragedies, but are also supposed 
to do it without being seen by the dominant society. Excommunicated 
from the sphere of human concern, they have been rendered invisible, 
utterly disposable, and heir to that army of socially homeless that 
allegedly no longer existed in colorblind America. Most of them, if 
not homeless, live in dilapidated housing, attend schools that are 
underfunded and literally falling apart, receive food stamps and eat 
mostly junk food when they can get it. They are the major targets of 
gun violence, lack decent health care and they often find themselves 
in hospital emergency rooms. These are the kids who experience daily, 
whether on the street or in school, draconian discipline policies 
that endlessly criminalize every aspect of their behavior and 
increasingly banish them from the very institutions such as schools 
that remain their last chance for getting a fair shake in life. It 
gets worse. For instance, a full 60 percent of black high school 
dropouts, by the time they reach their mid-thirties, will be 
prisoners or ex-cons and the drop out rate is as high as 65 percent 
in some cities.[5] This apartheid-based system of incarceration bodes 
especially ill for young black males. According to Paul Street:
It is worth noting that half of the nation's black male high-school 
dropouts will be incarcerated - moving, often enough, from 
quasi-carceral lock-down high schools to the real "lock down" thing - 
at some point in their lives. These dropouts are over represented 
among the one in three African American males aged sixteen- to 
twenty-years old who are under one form of supervision by the US 
criminal justice system: parole, probation, jail, or prison.[6]

As the toll in human suffering increases daily, Obama and his Wall 
Street advisers bail out the banks and the rich just as crucial 
social services for children are being cut back, unemployment is 
soaring into record numbers and more and more youth of color are 
disappearing into an abysmal pit of poverty, despair and 
hopelessness. Raised in a blood-drenched culture of violence mediated 
by an economic Darwinism that harbors a rabid disdain for the common 
good, poor minority kids appear to be completely off the radar of 
public concern and government compassion. And Obama, for all of his 
soaring poetic imagery of unity and justice, falls flat on his face 
by allowing his Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan to offer up 
reform policies that amount to nothing more than another version of 
Bush's No Child Left Behind with its anti-union ideology and 
obsessive investment in measurement and accountability schemes that 
strips any talk of educational reform of any viability while turning 
schools into nothing more than testing factories - policies that 
disproportionately punish brown and black youth. These racially 
exclusionary set of policies and institutions have become especially 
cruel since the beginning of the neoconservative revolution in the 
1980s, and are not poised to disappear soon under the presidency of 
Barack Obama - in fact, given the current economic crisis, they may 
even get worse.

In short, the discourse of the post-racial state ignores how 
political and economic institutions, with their circuits of 
repression and disposability and their technologies of punishment, 
connect and condemn the fate of many impoverished youth of color in 
the inner cities to persisting structures of racism that "serve to 
keep [them] in a state of inferiority and oppression."[7] Not 
surprisingly, under such circumstances, individual suffering no 
longer registers a social concern as all notions of injustice are 
assumed to be the outcome of personal failings or deficits. Signs of 
the pathologizing of both marginalized youth and the crucial safety 
nets that have provided them some hope of justice in the past can be 
found everywhere from the racist screeds coming out of right-wing 
talk radio to the mainstream media that seems to believe that the 
culture of black and brown youth is synonymous with the culture of 
crime. Poverty is now imagined to be a problem of individual 
character. Racism is now understood as merely an act of individual 
discrimination (if not discretion), and homelessness is reduced to a 
choice made by lazy people.
Unfortunately, missing from the discourse of those who are arguing 
for the kind of progressive change the Obama administration should 
deliver is any mention of the race-based crises facing youth and the 
terrible toll it has taken on generations of poor black and brown 
kids. Bringing this crisis to the forefront of the political and 
social agenda is crucial, particularly since Obama, in a number of 
speeches prior to assuming the presidency, refused to adopt the 
demonizing rhetoric often used by politicians when talking about 
youth. Instead, he pointedly called upon the American people to 
reclaim young people as an important symbol of the future and 
democracy itself:
[C]ome together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk 
about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black 
children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children 
and Native American children. This time we want to reject the 
cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids 
who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of 
America are not those kids, they are our kids.[8]

But if Barack Obama's call to address the crucial problems facing 
young people in this country is to be taken seriously, the political, 
economic and institutional conditions that both legitimate and 
sustain a shameful attack on poor minority youth have to be made 
visible, open to challenge and transformed. This can only happen by 
refusing the race-based somnambulism and social amnesia that coincide 
with the pretense of post-racial politics and society, especially 
when the matter concerns young people of color. To reclaim poor 
minority youth as part of a democratic vision and a crucial symbol of 
the future requires more than hope and a civics lesson: It 
necessitates transforming the workings of racist power arrangements 
both in and out of the government along with the market-driven 
institutions and values that have enabled the rise of a predatory 
corporate state and a punishing state that have produced a polity 
that governs through the logic of finance capital, consumerism, 
crime, disposability and a growing imprisonment binge.

The marriage of economic Darwinism and the racialized punishing state 
is on full display not merely in the rising rate of incarceration for 
black and brown people in the United States, but also in places like 
East Carroll Parish in Louisiana where inmates provide cheap or free 
labor at barbecues, funerals, service stations, and a host of other 
sites. According to Adam Nossiter, "the men of orange are everywhere" 
and people living in this Louisiana county "say they could not get by 
without their inmates, who make up more than 10 percent of its 
population and most of its labor force. They are dirt-cheap, 
sometimes free, always compliant, ever-ready and disposable....You 
just call up the sheriff, and presto, inmates are headed your way. 
'They bring me warm bodies, 10 warm bodies in the morning,' said 
Grady Brown, owner of the Panola Pepper Corporation. 'They do 
anything you ask them to do....' 'You call them up, they drop them 
off, and they pick them up in the afternoon,' said Paul Chapple, 
owner of a service station."[9] Nossiter claims that the system is 
jokingly referred to by many people who use it as "rent a convict" 
and is, to say the least, an "odd vestige of the 
abusive-convict-lease system that began in the South around 
Reconstruction."[10] This is not merely an eccentric snapshot of 
small town racism, it is also an image of what kind of future poor 
minority youth might inhabit.

Treating prisoners as commodities to be bought and sold like 
expendable goods suggests the degree to which the punishing state has 
divested itself of any moral responsibility with regard to those 
human beings who, in the logic of free-market fundamentalism, are 
considered either as commodities or as waste products, and this is 
true especially of young people. At the same time, as racism has been 
relegated to an anachronistic vestige of the past, especially in 
light of Barack Obama's election to the presidency, the workings of 
the punishing state are whitewashed and removed from the racialized 
violence that deeply influences and constrains the lives of so many 
young people. Consequently, the American public becomes increasingly 
indifferent to the ways in which the practices of a market-driven 
society - market deregulation, privatization, the hollowing out of 
the social state and the disparaging of the public good - wage a 
devastating assault on African-American and Latino communities, young 
people and, increasingly, immigrants and other people of color, who 
are relegated to the borders of American normalcy. Alarmingly, the 
punishing state, when coupled with the growing disappearance of 
newspapers and other crucial public spheres, not only produces vast 
amounts of inequality, suffering and racism, but also propagates 
collective amnesia, cynicism and moral indifference.

Under this insufferable climate of increased repression and unabated 
exploitation, young people and communities of color become the new 
casualties in an ongoing war against justice, freedom, social 
citizenship and democracy. While Obama speaks eloquently about the 
need to develop public polices that stress social investment rather 
than enriching the coffers of the rich, he has not produced adequate 
policies, especially in education, for whom poor and minority youth 
will no longer be viewed as either criminals or simply disposable. 
Instead of testing schemes, young people need structurally sound 
schools, smaller class sizes, high quality teachers, social programs 
that address the conditions that disable students from learning and a 
Marshall Plan committed to providing free education, health care, 
full employment through public works and a promise that the 
government is willing to invest as much time, money and resources in 
their future as it has invested so willingly in the past in the 
military-industrial complex and its expanding discourse of 
militarism. How much longer can a nation ignore those youth who lack 
the resources and opportunities that were available, in a partial and 
incomplete way, to previous generations? And what does it mean when a 
nation becomes frozen ethically and imaginatively in providing its 
youth with a future of hope and opportunity?

[1] For a brilliant analysis of the racist state, see David Theo 
Goldberg, "The Racial State" (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
[2] Joe Klein, "Obama's Victory Ushers in a New America," Time.com 
(November 5, 2008). Online: 
[3] Paul Ortiz, "On the Shoulders of Giants: Senator Obama and the 
Future of American Politics," Truthout.org (November 25, 2008). 
[4] 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. 59.
[5] Jason DeParle, "The American Prison Nightmare," New York Review 
of Books, Vol. LIV, No. 6 (April 12, 2007), p. 33.
[6] Paul Street, "Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in 
Post-Civil Rights America" (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 82.
[7] Angela Y. Davis, "Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, 
and Torture" (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), p. 98.
[8] From a transcript entitled "Barack Obama's Speech on Race," New 
York Times (March 18, 2008). Online: 
[9] Adam Nossiter, "With Jobs to Do, Louisiana Parish Turns to 
Inmates," New York Times (July 5, 2006). Online: 
[10] Nossiter, "With Jobs to Do, Louisiana Parish Turns to Inmates."

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and 
Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Related work: 
Henry A. Giroux, "The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of 
Innocence" (Lanham: Rowman and Lilttlefield, 2001). His most recent 
books include "Take Back Higher Education" (co-authored with Susan 
Searls Giroux, 2006), "The University in Chains: Confronting the 
Military-Industrial-Academic Complex" (2007) and "Against the Terror 
of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed" (2008). His 
newest book, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Beyond the Politics of 
Disposability," will be published by Palgrave Mcmillan in 2009.

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