Brookes in the Bronx: understanding futurity and youth in a summer of fraught race relations

The unusually clement summer weather in New York City this summer has made it easier to get on with most things, it would seem. A soft breeze has blown across Manhattan from the Hudson since we arrived, and like a good Englishman I’ve been happy to talk (to anyone who would listen) about how lovely the weather is and how lucky we’ve been to avoid the usual Dog Days of Summer.

Where the weather has been mild, the tensions around issues of race and youth have been anything but. This has led me to reflect on the ways in which race and ethnicity are imagined in relation to gender and imagined futures – and on the potentially terminal consequences that dissonant, negative constructions of race and ethnicity can have on the lives of the young people involved.

In the context of the 24-hour news cycle, last summer’s verdict on the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch captain Michael Zimmerman seems like a distant memory (and more distant still for those of us across the pond who more readily associate Florida with Mickey and his friends). Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges connected with the fatal shooting of Martin, who was unarmed at the time of the incident. This led to demonstrations across the US, with Barack Obama calling for ‘soul-searching’ about how this reflected the broader state of race relations in American society – particularly for young people -and young men in particular- who are not considered white.

Similarly, the fatal shooting of black 29 year-old Mark Duggan by police in North London during the summer of 2011 led to wide-scale rioting and expressions of discontent on behalf of young people in disadvantaged areas of the city, many of whom were from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and many of whom were articulating a combination of outcry at police brutality and outrage at the social marginalisation experienced in their everyday lives. Just as with the Martin case in Florida, the Duggan case led to acquittals and further demonstrations, but in the wash of other sad news about (mainly young) people dying around the world, it has been largely forgotten. It’s become more of a static case study for social commentary and sociological analysis (cue folk devils and moral panic) than evidence from our very recent history of an issue that remains at the centre of many young people’s lives.

Eric Garner died while being arrested by police in Staten Island.The pressing nature of these issues was nowhere more evident than in the US this summer. The news since July has been overshadowed by two cases of police using deadly force against black and minority men, young and slightly older. When I arrived in New York City on 5th August, the focus was on the case of Eric Garner, a 44 year-old Staten Island man who died when police put him in a choke hold during an arrest for selling ‘loosies’, or single cigarettes, on the street. Outcry over the death was widespread and led to massive demonstrations led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The focus remained not on decrying the police en masse (police shootings and deaths in police custody are down considerably in the NYC area this year), but on recognising racial prejudice and abuses of power  perpetrated by a minority of law enforcement that discriminate against black men in particular. 
This relatively peaceful response to an act of violence was then followed by demonstrations of a different kind, beginning on August 9th when Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old black teenager, was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Rioting spread in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting, with protesters raising their hands and carrying banners saying ‘Don’t Shoot!’, reflecting the disputed final moments of Brown’s life. As in the case of the London riots, this public demonstration of anger and frustration in some cases fuelled popular phantasmagoria about the public threat of young minority men in public spaces. But it also drew media attention once again to the precarious position that some young men are placed in, when faced with the real threat of injury or death at the hands of law enforcement who may imagine them to be people that they are not.   
Michael Brown's casket the day of his funeral Aug. 25.: Michael Brown's casket the day of his funeral Aug. 25.This is not the first run of summers where there have been cases of police brutality against young people, and I doubt it will be the last. Whatever the particular and varied details of these cases and the individuals involved, all point to the ongoing tension through which imaginings of race, ethnicity, social class, youth and gender are conflated with imaginings of social deviance, criminality and danger. 
This is not a new argument in sociological or anthropological understandings of race and ethnicity; and nor is it a new experience for people from black or minority backgrounds. But thinking in terms of aspiration (as I am prone to do these days), this particular racialised ‘youth’ is imagined as aspiring to crime, violence, lawlessness, self-interest, even social disorder and chaos – a different set of values altogether, apparently, from those ideally represented by law enforcement. Of course, each of these qualities is also socially constructed, and it’s as easy to see how the actions of some police may also encapsulate each of the above rather anti-social aspirations, against which people might rightly protest. What is compelling is the extent to which black and minority youth are often associated a priori with present and/or future criminality – a temporally framed, negative imagining of race, ethnicity and ‘youth’ that suggests that it’s not a matter of if these young people will aspire to criminality, but when. This process is abruptly stopped in its tracks for each of these men before the presumed aspiration to future deviance can grow into action. The same may also be said of imaginings of working class white young men, even if the police response may often be rather different. 

And this is also not just the experience of young men from minority backgrounds: just this week, the black Hollywood actress Daniele Watts of Django Unchained fame was handcuffed and held by LAPD for refusing to produce ID while being suspected of committing a leud act with her partner in their car on a public road. Leud acts aside, the issue in this detainment was that the officers involved apparently intimated that they thought they were dealing with a case of prostitution, because Watts is black and her partner is white. Without getting into the slightly convoluted details of this case (which you can read about here), once again the media circus focuses our attention on how imaginings of race and ethnicity are conflated with particular imaginings of deviance and criminality, many of which are also associated with ‘youth’, and with the inevitability of future deviance. Youth is, of course, a flexible concept, and in these stories it is stretched to include men aged 18-28 and women of indistinct age but ‘youthful’ appearance (trying to find out Watts’ actual age is a difficult and thankless task, readers). We should also note that many of the police and law enforcement involved in these cases would by the same token also be described as young – but they do not embody the kind of ‘youth’ apparently associated with individuals like Brown, or Martin, or Watts for that matter.  

Each of these cases has caused me to reflect on the ways in which popular negative imaginings of black and minority youth may impact both how young people construct ideas about their futures, and how they go about attempting to achieve these futures. The young people that I have met so far in my current research aspire to be cardiologists, architects, sanitation workers, writers, and, more importantly, to be ‘good people’. It must be difficult to maintain the integrity of these kinds of positive aspirations for the future when the negative popular imagining of ‘youth’ – and urban black and minority youth in particular – is built in some part around an assumption that one’s future will inevitably lead to deviance and criminality. When this popular imagination exists in the minds of the police, and when certain police officers find themselves in positions where they can act irrevocably on these imaginings of inevitable future criminality – whether imminent or impending – the results can be fatal and future-killing.

As the nights draw slowly in at the end of this summer, and as the wind begins to bite in the fading sunshine, I feel like I’m only just starting to understand the complexity of how race, ethnicity, gender and youth collide in the various and often divergent, contested imaginings of the future that inhabit this city.        

Brookes in the Bronx: First Day of Term

The First Day of Term: reflections from the beginning of an ethnography
Here are some of my reflections from the very early stages of a two-year comparative ethnography exploring the themes of imagined futures, aspiration and transitions into adulthood among school leavers in New York City and London (See Imagining The Future for project details). Just two days into the ethnography, I find that there’s already room to reconsider some of the conceptual and political boundaries that have shaped the research ideas.

Research into aspiration and schooling is not exactly new ground in our field: on the contrary, it is a staple of the sub-discipline. The contestation of futurity is a theme that permeates the background of many anthropological and sociological studies of childhood and youth. So why do this research project? Do we really need another ethnography that documents the long shadow of work, educational failure, and the struggle that some have in ‘makin’ it’?

My short answer to the above question is ‘Yes, we really do’, but challenging the usefulness of more research on aspiration and schooling has led me to plot a different path into the project. Like many ethnographies of aspiration and schooling before it, this ethnography is clearly focused on the linked educational challenges of raising aspirations, raising levels of achievement and attainment in schools, closing the achievement gap, and improving access to Higher Education. It also addresses the question of how formal secondary education can more effectively serve as a scaffold for transitions into the precarious world of contemporary young adulthood. Importantly, however, this research also addresses the educational challenge of thinking critically about how ‘aspiration’ and imagined futures are framed within the context of public/state education systems, and in wider society. It is important to investigate and challenge the ideas that shape how we think about aspirations and the future – of being educated, going to college, getting a job, being a ‘productive’ member of society, ‘dropping out’, and so on. Of course, this is not a radical point of political or theoretical argument: the anthropology and sociology of childhood and youth has a long pedigree of scholarship that identifies and challenges the arbitrary nature of taken-for-granted assumptions about what counts as the ‘right’ kind of life to aspire to, through chidhood and into later adult life. But this research does put back into the centre of the frame the concept of futurity – of imagined futures, and imagined future selves – as something that must be critically understood in the context of anthropological studies of childhood and youth. Rethinking the spatio-temporal framing of social identity – what I consider to be a kind of ‘quantum personhood’ existing not only in the past, present, and future, but in multiple, concurrent versions or imaginings of each – may lead to interesting new ways of thinking about how we are socialised into futurity, and what impacts this may have on how we conceptualise and experience childhood and youth (how we imagine age).
These ideas had been dormant on the page for several months in anticipation of the beginning of the research project – and I remain a long way from pairing them neatly with data from the research. But it was this week, on a Tuesday morning soaked with the humid weight of a New York summer, that I boarded a crowded subway train to arrive at the school where these ideas would be challenged and honed. Empty of students before the beginning of term, the school felt like an immense ship being prepared for a familiar but long and arduous journey. Custodial staff sweated around the school, towels tucked in T-shirt necks, and shouted an echoing commentary to one another down shiny corridors as they hammered, painted, and jerry-rigged the school back into shape. Teachers weaved in and out of classrooms and offices, plain-clothed, switching quickly between smiling conversations about summer vacations, new haircuts, tans, and the weather, and serious hushed huddles about school politics, supplies, bureaucracy, and the coming storm of teenagers. The ebullient figure of the Principal loomed large in this scene, smiling and stating with happy sincerity that ‘everyday at (this school) is a good day!’. He gathered the teachers together to go through past progress statistics and talk about the year to come – a year that would be bigger and better not only for the students on the sometimes trecherous path towards graduation, but also for the school as an entity with its own collective aspirations and hopes for the future.
To me, this moment of caesura – this hurried but confident fixing of costumes before curtains-up – is a fascinating example of how futurity is constructed and reproduced through the mundane processes of schooling. Without putting too much weight on this rather scant data, I think that it is indicative of the ways in which schools help in subtle and explicit ways to socialise us not only into imagining a horizon upon which we can fix our gaze, but also into constructing a sense of social identity that is only sensible when framed in this particular future-gazing way. What remains to be seen is the process through which competing and contested futures are imagined, sometimes concurrently or divergently, and the more profane daily routines through which certain futures, and certain aspirations, slowly disappear out of view for some students.