From New York City to Hong Kong (both places close to my heart), the past few weeks have provided good cause for reflection on the relationship between issues of civic participation, disobedience, and the place of ‘youth’ and young people in imagining new political futures.
Here in NYC, as the first golden brown leaves shimmered down in Central Park, the arrival of the UN General Assembly in mid-September brought about mass demonstrations around the connected issues of global capitalism and climate change. On 22nd September approximately 300,00 people marched through the streets of the city under the banner of the ‘People’s Climate March’, bringing traffic to a standstill and sending Instagram accounts into overdrive. This was the largest public demonstration focusing on climate change in history, organised to coincide with UN talks on environment. The intention was to show popular outcry about the current state of the planet. When the Yankees finished playing in the Bronx, and the Giants finished up in New Jersey, New York’s transit systems were flooded with an odd mix of baseball fans, football bros and hippies, activists, families and climate change voyeurs of all descriptions. It took a long time to get home that day.
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.
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.
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.