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.
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.
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.