Youth in a Suspect Society
by Henry Giroux
[This article posted in June 2023 is available on the Internet, https://www.laprogressive.com/progressive-issues/age-of-disposability.]
Memory has the power to be unsettling, especially with regard to how young people are narrated historically. It is the arena where agency is defined, power is played out, and tyranny is often hidden. What must be acknowledged in the current historical moment is that memories of youth can be more than provocative, they can also be dangerous, if they makes power, tyranny, and racial injustice visible. This is particularly true at a time when young people are no longer viewed as a long-term social investment, especially youth marginalized by color, sexual orientation, or class status. In the age of emerging fascism, history is being squelched and memory domesticated. With the rise of far-right, white supremacist Republican Party, the history of marginalized youth is now either being erased or re-written as part of a broader discourse of white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and the politics of disposability. Historical amnesia is now a weapon of mis-education.
There is a war raging in neoliberal societies, especially in the United States, especially against working-class youth, Black and Brown youth, and impoverished youth. Child labor laws are being weakened while right-wing parties have refused to extend the federal child tax credit pushing over 3 million more youth (17 percent of the youth population) into poverty. Moreover, police violence against Black and Brown youth is widespread, relegated to what appears to be a vicious sport; the number of homeless youth in America is escalating, and though far from complete, public schools are increasingly segregated and modeled after prisons. History is now dismissed as left-wing indoctrination, and historical memory is being rewritten to support fascist renderings of youth, social problems, resistance, and the struggle for social justice.
Any discourse about the future has to begin with youth, because they register the symbolic importance of America’s claim to progress, provide a measure of how a society is living up to its social responsibilities, and how its claims to democracy should be judged.
Any discourse about the future has to begin with youth, because they register the symbolic importance of America’s claim to progress, provide a measure of how a society is living up to its social responsibilities, and how its claims to democracy should be judged. By these measures, the United States has failed its most vulnerable young people. Youth now live in a society firmly ensconced in theater of fear, cruelty, bigotry, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and a death-dealing reach for unchecked power. As I have argued elsewhere, youth live in a suspect society. In this essay, I draw upon my own experiences as a working-class youth in order to both connect the personal to the political and to illustrate how historical memory is crucial in both connecting who we are, and how our identities are formed within a larger web of historical, structural, political, and cultural events. Too many working class and Black and Brown youth are at danger of losing their voice, the ability to narrate themselves, and thus becoming powerless. To emphasize the personal here is to make experience crucial, as it weaves its way through a web of theory, critical analysis, and self-reflection.
Connecting the Personal and the Political
Any rigorous conception of youth must consider the inescapable intersection of the personal, social, political, and pedagogical experiences embodied by young people. Beneath the abstract codifying of youth around the discourses of law, medicine, psychology, employment, education, and marketing statistics, there is the lived experience of being young. For me, youth evokes a repository of memories fueled by my own journey through an adult world that largely seemed to be in the way, a world held together by a web of disciplinary practices and restrictions that appeared at the time more oppressive than liberating. Lacking the security of a middle-class childhood, my friends and I seemed suspended in a society that neither accorded us a voice nor guaranteed economic independence. Identity didn’t come easy in my neighborhood. It was painfully clear to all of us that our identities were constructed out of daily battles waged around masculinity, the ability to mediate a terrain fraught with violence, and the need to find an anchor through which to negotiate a culture in which life was fast and short-lived. I grew up amid the motion and force of mostly white working-class male bodies—bodies asserting their physical strength as one of the few resources we had control over.
Dreams for the youth of my Smith Hill neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, were contained within a limited number of sites, all of which occupied an outlaw status in the adult world: the inner-city basketball court located in a housing project, which promised danger and fierce competition; the streets on which adults and youth collided as the police and parole officers harassed us endlessly; the New York System hole-in-the-wall restaurant operated by a guy who always had ten hot dogs and buns in various stages of preparation on his arm on a Saturday night and would wait for us to do business after we spent a night hanging out, drinking, and dancing.
For many of the working-class youth in my neighborhood, the Benefit Street basketball court, especially in the Black neighborhood, was one of the few public spheres in which the kind of cultural capital we recognized and took seriously could be exchanged for respect and admiration. If you weren’t good enough, you didn’t play; if you were good, you performed with a kind of humility arbitrated by a code that suggested you didn’t lose easily. Nobody was born with innate talent. Nor was anybody given instant recognition. The basketball court became for me a rite of passage and a powerful referent for developing a sense of possibility. We played day and night, and we played in any space that was available. Even when we got caught breaking into St. Patrick’s Elementary School one Friday night around one o’clock in the morning, the police officers who found us knew we were there to play basketball rather than to steal money from the teachers’ rooms or the vending machines. Basketball was taken very seriously because it was a neighborhood sport, a terrain where respect was earned. It offered us a mode of resistance, if not a respite, from the lure of drug dealing, the sport of everyday violence, and the general misery that surrounded us. The basketball court provided another kind of hope, one that seemed to fly in the face of the need for high status, school credentials, or the security of a boring job. It was also a sphere where we learned about the value of friendship, solidarity, and respect for each other.
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Yet the promise of the basketball court evaporated when high school ended and all but a talented few of the young men in the neighborhood moved from school to any one of a number of dead-end jobs, or public service jobs that offered a more promising future. The best opportunities came from taking a civil service test, and if one were lucky one got a job as a police officer or firefighter (as James Brown reminded us, it was strictly a “man’s world” then). Job or no job, one forever felt the primacy of the body: the body flying through the rarefied air of the neighborhood gym in a kind of sleek and stylized performance; the body furtive and cool, existing on the margins of society, filled with the possibility of instant pleasure and relief, or tense and anticipating the danger and risk; the body bent by the weight of grueling labor.
The body, with its fugitive status within working-class culture, allowed boys like myself from white, working-class neighborhoods to cross racial borders and rewrite the endemic racism of our community. We were white boys, and race and class positioned our bodies in turf wars marked by street codes that were both feared and respected (much less so than today when 12 year olds have access to automatic weapons). At the age of eight, I became a shoeshine boy and staked out a route inhabited by black and white nightclubs in Providence, Rhode Island. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights I started my route at seven o’clock and got home around midnight. I loved going into the Celebrity Club and other bars, watching the adults dance, drink, and steal furtive glances from each other. Most of all I loved the music. Billie Holiday, Fats Domino, Dinah Washington, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Little Richard played in the background against the sounds of glasses clinking and people talking—talking as if their only chance to come alive was compressed into the time they spent in the club. Whenever I finished my route, I had to navigate a dangerous set of streets to get back home. I learned how to talk, negotiate, and defend myself along that route. I was too skinny as a kid to be a tough guy; I had to learn a street code that was funny but smart, fast but not insulting. That’s when my body and head started working together. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was learning quickly that the intellect was as powerful a weapon as the body itself. Despite what I learned in that neighborhood, about the virtues of a kind of militant masculinity, I had to forge a different understanding about the relationship between my body and mind—one in which the body was only one resource for surviving.
I couldn’t articulate it in those formative years, but as I moved within and across a number of racially defined spheres, it slowly became clear to me that I had to reconsider how I understood my own whiteness and the racism that largely informed it. I had no intention of becoming a “color-blind” liberal, even if such an option had existed in the neighborhood in which I grew up, which of course it didn’t. But at the same time, I began to hate the racism that shaped the identities of myself and my white friends. However, challenging the long-held racism in my neighborhood was fraught with risks. My crossing of the racial divide was met at best with disdain, and at worst with ridicule. Crossing this border was never an option for the Black friends that I went to school with and played basketball with weekly. If they had crossed the racial border to come into my neighborhood, they would have been met with racial epithets and violence. Even in the early sixties, it became clear to me that such border crossings were restricted and only took place with a passport stamped with the legacy of white privilege. Yet, my body and its movements posed a challenge to the lessons of race and identity, and I was beginning to unlearn the racist ideologies that I had taken for granted for so long. But I still had no language to critically question how I felt, nor did I understand how exactly to interrogate and reject the notion that to be a working-class white kid meant one had to be a racist by default.
The language I inherited as a kid came from my family, friends, the street, school, and the larger popular culture. Rarely did I encounter a vocabulary in any of these spheres that ruptured or challenged the material relations of racism or the stereotypes and prejudices that reinforced race and class divisions. It was only later, as the sixties unfolded, that I discovered in the midst of the Civil Rights and anti-war movement the languages of dissent and possibility that helped me to rethink my own memories of youth, masculinity, racism, and class discrimination.
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I saw a lot in that neighborhood, and I couldn’t seem to learn enough to make sense of it or escape its pull. Peer groups formed early, and kids ruptured all but the most necessary forms of dependence on their parents at a very young age. I really only saw my parents when I went home to eat or sleep. All of the youth left home too early to notice the loss until later in life when we became adults or parents ourselves. Leaving home for me was made all the more complicated because my mother had severe epilepsy and had repeated seizures. My sister and I were not distant observers to my mother’s suffering—we often had to hold her down in bed when the seizures erupted. Shuffled between hospitals and institutions, my mother wasn’t home much. As a result of my mother’s absence, my sister was taken away by the social services and placed in a Catholic residence for girls. Losing my sister to an orphanage, I experienced for the first time what it meant to be homeless in my own home.
Home was neither a source of comfort nor a respite from the outside world. The neighborhood was my real home, and my friends provided the sanctuary for talk and security along with a cool indifference to the fact that none of us looked forward to the future. When I was in high school, I remember visiting my mother in state hospitals and being alarmed by the fact that many of the attendants were guys from my neighborhood, guys who seemed dangerous and utterly indifferent to human life, guys whom on the streets I had both known and avoided. It seemed to me like everybody was warehoused in that neighborhood, irrespective of age.
Basketball Dreams and the Nightmare of Tenure
I eventually left my neighborhood, but it was nothing less than a historical accident that allowed me to leave. I never took the requisite tests to apply to a four-year college. When high school graduation came around, I was offered a basketball scholarship to a junior college in Worcester, Massachusetts. It seemed better to me than working in a factory, so I went off to school with few expectations and no plans except to play ball. I was placed in a business program but had no interest in what the program offered. The culture of the college seemed terribly alien to me, and I missed my old neighborhood. After violating too many rules and drinking more than I should have, I saw clearly that my life had reached an impasse. I left school and went back to my old neighborhood hangouts.
My friends’ lives had already changed. Their youth had left them, and they now had families and lousy jobs and spent a lot of time in the neighborhood bar waiting for a quick hit at the racetrack or the promise of a good disability scheme. After working for two years at odd jobs, I managed to play in the widely publicized Fall River basketball tournament and did well enough to attract the attention of a few coaches who tried to recruit me. Following their advice, I took the SATs and scored high enough to qualify for entrance into a small college in Maine that offered me a basketball scholarship. But nothing came easy for me when it involved school. Although I made the starting lineup on the varsity team and managed to be the team high-scorer my first year, the coach resented me because I was an urban kid—too flashy, too hip, and maybe too dangerous for the rural town of Gorham, Maine. I left the team at the beginning of my sophomore year, took on a couple of jobs to finance my education, and eventually graduated with a teaching degree in secondary education.
After getting my teaching certificate, I became a community organizer and a high school teacher. Then, worn thin after six years of teaching high school social studies, I applied for and received another scholarship, this one to attend Carnegie-Mellon University. I finished my course work early and spent a year unemployed while writing my dissertation. I finally got a job at Boston University. Again, politics and culture worked their strange magic as I taught, published, and prepared for tenure. My tenure experience changed my perception of liberalism forever. Like many idealistic young academics, I believed that if I worked hard at teaching and publishing I would surely get tenure. I did my best to follow the rules but did so with little understanding of the political forces governing Boston University at that time. It turned out I was dead wrong about the rules and the alleged integrity of the tenure process.
Unexpectedly, I was denied tenure by John Silber, President of Boston University, who not only ignored the various unanimous tenure committee recommendations but actually solicited letters supporting denial of my tenure.
By the time I came up for tenure review, I had published two books and fifty journal articles and given numerous talks, and I passed through the tenure process unanimously at every level of the university. But then, unexpectedly, I was denied tenure by John Silber, President of Boston University, who not only ignored the various unanimous tenure committee recommendations but actually solicited letters supporting denial of my tenure from notable conservatives such as Nathan Glazer and Chester Finn. Glazer’s review was particularly embarrassing in that it began with the comment, “I have read all of the work of Robert Giroux.” The Dean of Education, my supporter, threatened to resign if I did not receive tenure. Of course, he didn’t. Silber’s actions had a chilling effect on many faculty who had initially rallied to my support. They realized quickly that the tenure process was a rigged affair under the Silber regime and that anyone who complained about it might compromise their own academic career. One faculty member apologized to me for his refusal to meet with Silber to protest my tenure decision. Arguing that he owned two condominiums in the city, he explained that he couldn’t afford to act on his conscience since he would be risking his investments. Of course, his conscience went on vacation when it came to acting in defense of his material assets.
By the time I met Silber to discuss my case, I was convinced that my fate had already been decided. Silber met me in his office, asked me why I wrote such “shit,” and made me an offer. He suggested that if I studied the philosophy of science and logic with him as my personal tutor, I could maintain my current salary and would be reconsidered for tenure in two years. The only other catch was that I had to agree not to write or publish anything during that time. I was taken aback, and responded with a joke by asking him if he wanted to turn me into George Will. He missed the humor, and I left. I declined the offer, was denied tenure, and after sending off numerous job applications finally landed a job at Miami University. Working-class intellectuals do not fare well in the culture of higher education, especially when they are on the left of the political spectrum. I have been asked many times since this incident whether I would have continued the critical writing that has marked my career if I had known that I was going to be fired because of the ideological orientation of my work. Needless to say, for me, it is better to live standing up than on one’s knees. Sadly, my story of being denied tenure at Boston University—at the time, an aberration from the norm—is now becoming an all too familiar tale. Today, academics have become another group suffering from the threat of exclusion and disposability as their autonomy is increasingly questioned and constrained by business-oriented administrators. Moreover, under the twin scourge of neoliberalism and fascist politics, faculty are either reduced to grueling part-time positions or are being told to become indoctrinating agents for white-supremacist models of education.
In my early career at the university, the academic game seemed to be rigged against me, but even then I had become more of an exception than the rule. The lesson here is that whether we are talking about failure or success, the experiences of many working-class kids in this culture are more an effect of their place in society than the result of either personal inadequacy, on the one hand, or an unswerving commitment to the ethic of hard work and individual responsibility, on the other.
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Fugitive Hopes and Border Crossings
My youth was lived through class formations that I felt were largely viewed by others as an outlaw culture. Schools, hospitals, community centers, and other middle-class social spaces interpreted us as alien, other, and deviant because we were from the wrong class and had the wrong kind of cultural capital. As working-class youth, we were defined through our deficits. Class marked us as poor, inferior, linguistically inadequate, and often dangerous. Our bodies were more valued than our minds, and the only way to survive was to deny our voices, experiences, and location as working-class youth. We were feared and denigrated more than we were affirmed, and the reality of being part of an outlaw culture penetrated us with an awareness that we could hardly navigate critically or theoretically, but still felt in every fiber of our being.
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The working-class culture in which I grew up wore its fugitive status like a badge, but all too often it was unaware of the contradictions that gave it meaning. We lacked the political vocabulary and insight that would have enabled us to see the contradiction between the brutal racism, violence, and sexism that marked our lives and our constant attempts to push against the grain by investing in the pleasures of body, the warmth of solidarity, and the appropriation of neighborhood spaces as outlaw publics. As kids, we were border crossers and had to learn to negotiate the power, violence, and cruelty of the dominant culture through our own lived histories, restricted languages, and narrow cultural experiences. Recognizing our fugitive status in the dominant institutions in which we found ourselves—including schools, the workplace, and social services—we were suspicious and sometimes spiteful of what we didn’t have or how we were left out of the representations that seemed to define American youth in the 1950s and early 1960s.
We listened to Etta James and hated both the music of Pat Boone and the cultural capital that for us was synonymous with golf, tennis, and prep schools. We lost ourselves in the grittiness of working-class neighborhood gyms, abandoned cars, and street corners that offered a haven for escape, but also invited police surveillance and brutality. Being part of an outlaw culture meant that we lived almost exclusively on the margins of a life that was not of our choosing. And as for the present, it was all we had since it made no sense to invest in a future that for many of my friends either ended too early or pointed to the dreaded possibility of becoming an adult, which usually meant working in a boring job by day and hanging out in the local bar by night. We bore witness to the future only to escape into the present, and the present never stopped pulsating. Like most marginalized youth cultures, we were time-bound. The memory work would have to come later. But when it came it offered us a newfound appreciation of what we learned in those neighborhoods about solidarity, trust, friendship, sacrifice, and, most of all, individual and collective struggle.
Bearing witness, as I have tried to do in this essay, is not simply an autobiographical rendering of personal events. It is a mode of analysis that seeks to connect private troubles to larger social forces, just as it always implicates oneself in a collective past. Connecting my own story to an awareness of broader social issues gives rise to reflections on how youth act and are acted upon within a myriad of public sites, cultures, and institutions. Some theorists have suggested that the practices of witnessing and testimony lie at the heart of what it means to teach and to learn. Witnessing and testimony, translated here, mean speaking and listening to the stories of others as part of both an ethical response to the narratives of the past and a moral responsibility to engage the present. I often wonder how my own formation as a working-class youth and eventual border crosser, moving often without an “official passport” between cultures, ideologies, jobs, and fugitive knowledge, might be invoked as a form of bearing witness. How might the testimony to which I bear witness help me not only to interrogate my own shifting location as a critical educator, but also provide an important narrative and locus for identification through which others can begin to understand the complexity and significance of the different conditions that have shaped our individual and collective histories? The message for educators and other cultural workers that emerges out of this engagement is the pedagogical challenge that “if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a[n] (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught.”
The crisis I speak of in this instance is about the plight of youth as a social and political category in an age of increasing symbolic, material, and institutional violence. It is a crisis rooted in society’s loss of any sense of history, memory, and ethical responsibility. The idea of the public good, the notion of connecting learning to social change, and the idea of civic courage being infused by social justice, have been lost in an age of rabid consumerism, media-induced spectacles, and short-term, high yield financial investments. Under the regime of neoliberalism and a rigidly market-driven society, concepts and practices of community and solidarity have been replaced by a world of cutthroat survival, even as politics has become an extension of war. What youth learn quickly today, especially Black and Brown youth, is that their fate is solely a matter of individual survival, a natural law of sorts that has more to do with survival instinct than with modes of collective reasoning, social solidarity, and the formation of a sustainable democratic society.
My youth may be marked as the last time when young people could still experience the hope and support given to poor youth in the form of a social state that took the social contract seriously.
My youth may be marked as the last time when young people could still experience the hope and support given to poor youth in the form of a social state that took the social contract seriously. While we may have lived in private hells, we never felt entirely demonized or shut out from the most basic social services. Nor did we feel that our troubles were simply private issues. We hung out at the boys’ club, took part in after school sports, joined summer leagues, had an opportunity to attend day camps, and knew that even in the worst of times we could count on (in the present and in the future) medical services, a job, and a wage, however unfair. Politicians at either end of the political spectrum viewed youth as a social investment, even if it meant investing in some youth more than in others. Responsibility both provided moral sustenance and presented occasions in which the practices of compassion, trust, and respect mediated the relationship between the self and others. Authority was never beyond critique; resistance was a mark of pride; and the moral obligation to care for others was embodied in our personal codes, religious institutions, and state-sponsored services. A respect for the common good prevailed. Community was a word, however flawed, that resonated with a deeply felt concern for the public good and the public institutions that nourished it. Love, friendship, hard work, helping neighbors in distress, and respect for the people that one associated with thrived in that neighborhood where I grew up. Labels and logos did not define my generation. Commodity culture was outside of our reach, and it was only later in life that I realized what a blessing that had been, particularly as neighborhoods organized around a different and more honest set of values in which the suffering and misfortunes of others were taken seriously.
What was striking about my Smith Hill neighborhood was the view that nobody was disposable and that giving and receiving collective support was a virtue, not a liability or a sign of weakness. In the midst of poverty and various crisis situations, the entire working-class neighborhood often mobilized to provide food, clothing, and, in some cases, money for distressed families and disadvantaged young people. The men and women in my neighborhood worked hard, shared their stories, gathered at church on Sundays, and recognized injustice when they saw it. No one bought into the myth that individuals alone had to bear both the blame for their misfortune and the responsibility for their own survival in times of crisis. If the parents, young people, and working-class adults I grew up were lacking power, they made up for it by working hard within the limits imposed on them in a society that produced vast amounts of inequality and brutality.
Youth in my neighborhood had a difficult time growing up. There were no innocent young people on those streets, just young people trying to act like adults in order to stay alive and get by. But despite how bad it was, there was a sense of civic values and a respect for the public good that all of us believed in. If youth were under siege, it was largely because of repressive forces that were imposed on us from alien and hostile sites that we tried to stay clear of. The police roamed our neighborhoods on foot patrols, and, while often repressive and authoritarian, they were still absent from our schools. We didn’t have to face the disciplinary apparatus of an expanding criminal justice system that many young people face today with the ongoing development of a youth crime-control complex and militarized schools. Nor were our books censored. There were no police roaming the corridors; no metal detectors reminding us of how unsafe we were; no mass shootings and the smell of gun powder wafting through the school.
We were disciplined in a much different manner. Guidance teachers were the masters of our fate and shamelessly determined how many of us poor kids should be in vocational classes because we were clearly incapable of being intelligent. But there were no police in my school, just adult authority figures and teachers who believed that the school was a public rather than a private good, however flawed their actions were at times. While many of us were tracked at Hope High School by administrators and teachers who felt we were more of a liability than an asset, there were also plenty of other adults around to offer guidance and help. They picked us up and gave us a ride to school on occasion, given the long hike and often inclement weather we had to face. They often lived in our neighborhoods and knew people in the community. They joked with us, understood the restricted code, and watched out for those young people who were always on the verge of dropping out of high school.
In the 1950s and 60s, the neoliberal world of vast inequalities and exclusions in which people are only connected to one another through the possibility of enhancing profit margins was only just beginning to rear its ugly values and institutional tentacles. Matters of agency and politics, however deformed, were still the subject and grounds for both criticism and hope. Collective responsibility for individual well-being was still alive, at least as an ideal in the America of my youth, and it was precisely such an ideal that drove the Civil Rights movement, the student rebellions of the sixties, and the Great Society policies under President Lyndon Johnson. Put another way, a democratic consciousness at that point in history had not been snuffed out by market-driven values and policies mobilized under the reign of a cruel and unjust neoliberalism, largely hatched among the elite at the University of Chicago and in the highest levels of government. Privatized utopias and gated spaces were not part of our experience as young people growing up at that time. The hegemonic consumerist culture that would later descend like a plague on American society in the 1980s was still capable of being challenged and resisted in the search for more democratic and compassionate values and social relations.
Social protections and investments, even as they apply to youth who are utterly dependent upon the larger society, are now the object of scorn as right-wing politicians—whom I call the new barbarians—demand the elimination of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment benefits, and any other program aimed at helping those suffering from the systemic failures of an unjust and often cruel socioeconomic system. For many young people today, the possibility of a better future has vanished. More children are growing up poor, facing a world with few job opportunities, and viewed as being trouble rather than facing troubles.
The United States has not just lost its moral compass in a sea of collective anger as some liberals seem to believe (given its history, the very notion of a moral compass is more of an ideal than a reality). Instead, it has become a country that is no longer able to connect reason and freedom, recognize the fascist forces that now threaten it from within, and bolster its capacity to protect its citizens from the ravages of unscrupulous neoliberalism as its spreads like a plague across the globe. The spectacle of moral panics over immigrants, the wild fire of religious and racial bigotry, conscienceless support for unchecked inequality and corporate power, the endless reproduction of celebrity and consumer culture, and growing registers of shared fears aimed at people of color and marginalized youth now define American politics.
The future is increasingly being shaped by barbarians who thrive on ignorance and stupidity, while reaping the rewards of big corporate power and money. Freedom is now tied to the making of instant fortunes largely by the corporate elite and to an individualistic ethic that disdains any notion of solidarity and social responsibility. The collapse of neoliberalism has moved the US into an alignment with fascist politics threatening any semblance of liberal democracy. The social state has become a garrison state committed to dismantling collective forms of insurance that cover individuals who suffer from debilitating and life-changing calamities, while simultaneously expanding the prison system and other elements of the human disposal industry.
The working-class neighborhood of my youth never gave up on democracy as an ideal, despite how much it might have failed us. As an ideal, it offered the promise of a better future; it mobilized us to organize collectively in order to fight against injustice; and it cast an intense light on those who traded in corruption, unbridled power, and greed. Politics was laid bare in a community that expected more of itself and its citizens as it tapped into the promise of a democratic society. But like many individuals and groups today, democracy is now also viewed as disposable and considered redundant—a dangerous remnant of another age. And yet, like the memories of my youth, there is something to be found in those allegedly outdated ideals that may provide the only hope we have for recognizing the anti-democratic politics, power relations, and reactionary ideologies espoused by the new barbarians.
Democracy as both an ideal and a reality is now under siege in a militarized culture of bigotry, fear and forgetting. The importance of moral witnessing has been replaced by a culture of instant gratification, unmediated anger, and the call for racial violence. The lights are going out in America. And the threat comes not from alleged irresponsible government spending, a growing deficit, or the specter of a renewed democratic social state. On the contrary, it comes from the dark forces of an economic Darwinism and its newly energized armies of white supremacists, shout-till-you-drop mobs, reactionary ideologues, powerful right-wing media conglomerates, and corporate-sponsored politicians who sincerely hope if not yet entirely believe that the age of democratization has come to an end and the time for a new and cruel politics of disposability and human waste management is at hand.
Perhaps it is time to reclaim a past in which resistance, justice, and hope provided a glimpse of what the future might look like or at least at what might be the necessary conditions for a multicultural, working-class mass movement. Perhaps the time has come to revive a culture and politics not too far removed from my own youthful memories of when democracy as an ideal was worth struggling over, in which public goods were more important than consumer durables; in which the common good outweighed private privileges; and in which the critical notion that a society can never be just enough was the real measure of civic identity and political health. Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the spirit of a diverse and powerful mass social movement willing to organize, speak out, educate, and fight for the promise of a democracy that would do justice to the dreams of a generation of young people waiting for adults to prove the courage of their democratic convictions. Youth matter not only because they are a long-term investment in social responsibility, justice, and freedom, but also because, to paraphrase former President Lyndon B. Johnson, they remind us that the fight their well-being and justice is part of a wider struggle against poverty, economic inequality, systemic racism, and the “fight against despair. It is a fight against hopelessness. It is a fight for the soul of America."
 This essay draws from my Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (New York: Routledge, 2012).