Locked Out and Locked Up: Youth Missing in Action From Obama's Stimulus Plan
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Rendering poor minority youth as dangerous and a threat to society no longer requires allusions to biological inferiority; the invocation of cultural difference is enough to both racialize and demonize "difference without explicitly marking it, in the 'post-racial' Obama era. This disparaging view of young people has promulgated the rise of a punishing and (in)security industry whose discourses, technologies and practices have become visible across a wide range of spaces and institutions, extending from schools to shopping malls to the juvenile criminal justice system. As the protocols of governance become indistinguishable from military operations and crime-control missions, youth are more and more losing the protections, rights, security or compassion they deserve in a viable democracy. The model of policing that now governs all kinds of social behaviors constructs a narrow range of meaning through which young people define themselves. Moreover, the rhetoric and practice of policing, surveillance and punishment have little to do with the project of social investment and a great deal to do with increasing powerful modes of regulation, pacification and control -- together comprising a "youth control complex" whose prominence in American society points to a state of affairs in which democracy has lost its claim and the claiming of democracy goes unheard. Rather than dreaming of a future bright with visions of possibility, young people, especially youth marginalized by race and color, face a coming-of-age crisis marked by mass incarceration and criminalization, one that is likely to be intensified in the midst of the global financial, housing and credit crisis spawned by neoliberal capitalism.
As Alex Koroknay-Palicz argues, "Powerful national forces such as the media, politicians and the medical community perpetuate the idea of youth as an inferior class of people responsible for society's ills and deserving of harsh penalties." While such negative and demeaning views have had disastrous consequences for young people, under the reign of a punishing society and the deep structural racism of the criminal justice system, the situation for a growing number of young people and youth of color is getting much worse. The suffering and deprivation experienced by millions of children in the United States in 2008 -- and bound to become worse in the midst of the current economic meltdown -- not only testifies to a state of emergency and a burgeoning crisis regarding the health and welfare of many children, but also bears witness to -- and indeed indicts -- a model of market sovereignty and a mode of punitive governance that have failed both children and the promise of a substantive democracy. The Children's Defense Fund in its 2007 annual report offers a range of statistics that provide a despairing glimpse of the current crisis facing too many children in America. What is one to make of a society marked by the following conditions:
- Almost 13 million children in America live in poverty -- 5.5 million in extreme poverty.
- 4.2 million children under the age of five live in poverty.
- 35.3 percent of black children, 28.0 percent of Latino children and 10.8 percent of white, non-Latino children live in poverty.
- There are 9.4 million uninsured children in America.
- Latino children are three times as likely, and black children are 70 percent more likely, to be uninsured than white children.
- Only 11 percent of black, 15 percent of Latino and 41 percent of white eighth graders perform at grade level in math.
- Each year 800,000 children spend time in foster care.
- On any given night, 200,000 children are homeless -- one out every four of the homeless population.
- Every 36 seconds a child is abused or neglected -- almost 900,000 children each year.
- Black males ages 15-19 are about eight times as likely as white males to be gun homicide victims.
- Although they represent 39 percent of the US juvenile population, minority youth represent 60 percent of committed juveniles.
- A black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance.
- Black juveniles are about four times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated. Black youths are almost five times as likely and Latino youths about twice as likely to be incarcerated as white youths of drug offenses.
As these figures suggest, the notion that children should be treated as a crucial social resource and represent for any healthy society important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests appears to be lost. Under the reign of the market-driven punishing state, a racialized criminal justice system, and a "financial Katrina" that is crippling the nation, the economic, political and educational situation for a growing number of poor young people and youth of color has gone from bad to worse. As families are being forced out of their homes because of record-high mortgage foreclosures and many businesses declare bankruptcy, tax revenues are declining and effecting cutbacks in state budgets, further weakening public schools and social services. The results in human suffering are tragic and can be measured in the growing ranks of poor and homeless students, the gutting of state social services, and the sharp drop in employment opportunities for teens and young people in their twenties. Within these grave economic conditions, children disappear, often into bad schools, prisons, foster care and even into their graves. Under the rule of an unchecked market-driven society, the punishing state has no vocabulary or stake in the future of poor minority youth, and increasingly in youth in general. Instead of being viewed as impoverished, minority youth are seen as lazy and shiftless; instead of recognizing that many poor minority youth are badly served by failing schools, they are labeled as uneducable and pushed out of schools; instead of providing minority youth with decent work skills and jobs, they are either sent to prison or conscripted to fight in wars abroad; instead of being given decent health care and a place to live, they are placed in foster care or pushed into the swelling ranks of the homeless. Instead of addressing the very real dangers that young people face, the punishing society treats them as suspects and disposable populations, subjecting them to disciplinary practices that close down any hope they might have for a decent future.