Dangerous or Endangered?
Oakland politicians have proposed a youth curfew in response to the tragic death of another child. It’s almost a political ritual – every few years we return to this idea that clearing young people off the streets will solve Oakland’s problems of crime and violence.
This debate is a potent reminder that fears about young people play a powerful role in our politics. We are afraid for our own children as they grow up in hard economic times and have to negotiate violent streets. But we are also deeply afraid of young people – usually those we define as “other people’s kids.” These fears about youth have transformed our politics – but it also has prompted deep debates in cities like Oakland. What do kids need? Who is responsible for them? What are the boundaries between public and private responsibility? What should local or state governments do to help?
My book Dangerous or Endangered? Race and the Politics of Youth in Urban America examines these debates across 3 Oakland neighborhoods from the flatlands to the hills. I wrote this book so that the country could learn from Oakland as we try to confront the very real problems young people face.
Moving across Oakland and the East Bay, we cannot ignore the fact that America is a nation of radically unequal childhoods, and children’s opportunities are still shaped by race and class. If we face up to these realities, we need to ask ourselves: Why does America tolerate such vast inequalities in children’s lives? And what would be required for us to actually invest in creating equal opportunity childhoods?
Oakland activists have been working for decades to create equal opportunities for its young people. There have been many successes. But there have also been uphill battles, compromises and failures we must learn from. One of the most important lessons I learned from Oakland’s activists is that the stories we tell about young people shape the kinds of state actions we try to secure. If we describe kids on a street corner as children waiting for the bus to go to home, we might ask whether we need to invest in more after school activities or more buses so they can get home. But if we describe these same kids as “thugs,” we become fearful and demand more discipline, surveillance and punishment. The concept of care falls out of our vocabulary. You don’t care for people you are afraid of.
We all need to confront our fears of young people – and the racial and class divides that often underlie those fears. The racial distribution of poverty and punishment in America has corrupted our national commitment to kids. Too many Americans define poor children of color as “not our kids” and so not our responsibility. As a nation, we may pity them, at least until they become young teenagers, at which point we mostly fear them. But we repeatedly refuse to see the ways in which public policies have produced America’s vast racial and class divides in childhood.
Constructing a more progressive politics of childhood requires that we confront these racial divides and challenge the powerful image of youth criminality that has twisted our public response to the needs and problems of youth.
Join me to talk more about the politics of youth in Oakland and how we can create a more progressive politics that would invest in equal opportunities for all our children.
Thursday Oct 6 at 6:00 p.m. at Oakland’s Main Public Library Bradley C. Walters Community Room or
Friday Oct 7 at 7 p.m. at the Laurel Book Store 4100 MacArthur Blvd at the corner of 39th Ave.
Jennifer Tilton is an Associate Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Redlands in Southern California. She is the founder of the REACH program that works with incarcerated youth in San Bernardino Juvenile Hall.
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