Toward a Politics of Relevance: Race, Resistance and African American Youth Activism
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Shawn Ginwright is an Associate Professor of Education in the Africana Studies Department at San Francisco State University. In 1989, Dr. Ginwright founded Leadership Excellence Inc. an innovative youth development agency located in Oakland, California that trains African American youth to address pressing social and community problems. In 1999, he received his Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. His research examines the ways in which youth in urban communities navigate through the constraints of poverty and struggle to create equality and justice in their schools and communities. He is the author of Black in School: Afrocentric Reform, Black Youth and the Promise of Hip-Hop Culture. He has published extensively on issues related to urban youth in journals such as Social Problems, Social Justice, Urban Review, and New Directions in Youth Development. He is a highly sought speaker to national and international audiences.

The Politics of Activism Among African American Youth

In recent years, social science research about African American youth has focused almost entirely on understanding various causes of problem behavior such as violence, school failure, substance abuse and crime. While a deeper understanding of these social problems is indeed important, the narrow focus on problems obscures the complex ways in which youth respond, challenge and sometimes transform the conditions in their schools and communities. As a result of this narrow focus, we are left with an understanding of African American youth that centers primarily on understanding problems, prevention and pathology and does not sufficiently explain how they engage in civic and political behavior.

Given the vibrant role of African American young people in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the decline of activism among African American youth today should prompt questions regarding why they seem to be disconnected from political life. Conclusions about youth political behavior have not sufficiently addressed questions about how social, economic and political conditions promote or inhibit activism among African American youth. Despite these conclusions, for those of us who spend time with African American youth in their schools, communities and homes, we can point to numerous examples of vibrant forms of political and civic life. Is it possible that we may simply be asking the wrong questions regarding civic and political behavior among African American youth? Rather than drawing conclusions from narrow conceptualizations of civic behavior such as volunteering and specific knowledge of the branches of government, we need a more nuanced understanding about what constitutes civic behavior for African American youth in urban communities. We need to better understand, for example, how community conditions and social settings shape the contours of political behavior, and how factors such as racism, poverty, and violence influence political ideas.

Understanding Barriers to Black Youth Activism

A growing body of research suggests that traditional measures for civic participation may be inappropriate for assessing civic engagement among youth in poor communities (Lang 1998; Sanchez-Jankowski 2002). Youth who have histories of racial discrimination and exclusion from mainstream civic activities, such as participation in student government or citywide youth councils, have different strategies for engagement that often are overlooked by social scientists. Often, civic participation among minority youth is reflected in activities that address quality of life issues they view most important in their lives, the lives of their families and their respective communities (Yates and Youniss 1999; Carpini 2000). Such activities might include addressing police harassment when coming and going from school (Fine, Freudenberg et al. 2003), encouraging the school to purchase new heaters for their classrooms during cold winters, or advocating for free bus passes for transportation to and from school for students who receive public assistance (Institute for Education and Social Policy 2001; Gold, Simon et al. 2002). These activities raise questions about the conditions that either promote or inhibit civic and political engagement among African American youth.

We can point to at least two factors that continue to threaten political activism among African American youth. First is the consistent attack on African American youth and their families through hostile public policy. For example, zero tolerance policies in many urban schools highlights how negative perceptions of African American youth held by policy makers shape hostile policy. The longstanding belief that young people need support from institutions such as schools have been replaced by the idea that youth are becoming more violent and therefore need more discipline and tougher punishment (Males 1996). This dramatic public policy shift disproportionately impacts working-class African American youth and youth of color (Dohrn 2000; Polakow-Suransky 2000). Despite the fact that school districts around the country have adopted zero tolerance policies that attempt to ensure school safety, these policies actually have often had the opposite effect. Noguera (2003) has found that in the past 10 years, schools have increasingly taken on the appearance and function of juvenile detention facilities which have actually contributed to more fights among students and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Therefore, instead of dealing with social and economic problems through the curriculum, some schools have implemented a variety of punitive measures, including segregating lunches by racial/ethnic groups, requiring student ID’s to enter classrooms, constructing fences topped with sharp protruding edges, and increasing police presence on school campuses (Polakow-Suransky 2000). These measures increase hostilities between young people in these schools and exacerbate tensions between youth and the police who reside within their schools.

Second, African American youth activism is threatened by a “politics of relevance” in which generational political ideas are in conflict. The Civil Rights generation- (black adults who came of age during the Civil Rights movement) and the hip-hop generation- (black youth who have grown up in the post civil rights era) have divergent political ideas about poverty, race, public education and incarceration. Since 1965, the mass exodus of blue collar jobs, increased surveillance of urban schools, coercive military-like policing practices in black communities, corporate deception like the Enron scandal have all made black youth suspicious of both powerful institutions and institutional politics. As a result, many youth of the hip-hop generation have little or no faith in a system that seems to only protect the wealthy at the expense of their communities.

African American adults from the civil rights generation often cannot fully understand black youth culture, and many are disconnected from the political issues that are most important to African American youth. Kitwana notes that the older generation’s views of poverty, unemployment, and limited job options, “exacerbate tensions between black youth and black adults because older black adults view poverty as simply something many of them overcame. As a result, many adults take the position of ‘why can’t your generation do the same? Or why does your generation use poverty as an excuse?’” (p. 42).

These findings are consistent with Lisa Sullivan’s observations of civic life among African American youth. Sullivan argues that African American youth are increasingly isolated from “old guard” civil rights political organizations who do not confront issues most relevant to African American urban youth. African American adults from the civil rights generation have not adequately addressed the complex issues confronting today’s urban youth because they do not share the same worldview, political identities and economic realities (Sullivan 1996; Kitwana 2002).

For example, in 2000, the NAACP publicly opposed the South Carolina Legislature’s decision to retain the state’s confederate flag while at the same time black youth in South Carolina comprised 73% of incarcerated juveniles, were two times more likely to drop out of school, and experienced more instances of gun violence than any other group. While opposing South Carolina Legislature’s decision to retain the flag was symbolically important to many African Americans, the NAACP had little involvement in confronting some of the most pressing quality of life issues such as disproportionate incarceration, juvenile sentencing and gun violence.

Today, the visible landscape of race and political identity among African American youth that existed in the 1960s has dramatically changed. Arguably, there are only a few African American institutions that boldly confront issues most relevant to black youth and can attract and hold their political attention. The Nation of Islam, the Hip Hop Action Summit Network, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement to name a few present new spaces for political discourse among African American youth. Despite these barriers to political participation, however, African American youth are not passive victims of social neglect. Rather, many find remarkable ways to struggle collectively to improve the quality of their lives. However, researchers have not sufficiently explored how African American youth respond and resist failed public policy and generational tensions. Urban ethnographer Steven Gregory (1998) warns that descriptions of African American youth and their communities “as socially isolated and institutionally disabled by joblessness and by the exodus of the middle classes, has . . . obscured the struggles that black urbanites have continued to wage against racial injustices” (p. 10). However, our understanding of these forms of resistance is thin. I present three key points that may further our understanding of African American youth civic and political behavior.

Race and Political Identity among African American Youth

The phenomenon of international young people wielding their privilege to challenge the occupation through nonviolent activism in Palestine is a striking demonstration of these activists' analysis of transnational responsibility-and sense of personal power. Globalization research focused on youth tends to view them as particularly disempowered by transnational flows; scholars have suggested that with the international circulation of images of consumables comes a clash of "possible worlds" (Appadurai 1991) for young people, who drown in a sea of desires for impossible lives or flail as sudden "nobodies" in a global system that erodes local systems of meaning (Leichty 1995, Fong 2004). In the case of youth political networks, however, globalization can mean the global connection of young people committed to an ideology of social equality-and this kind of globalization may be leading youth instead to the sense of actually being "somebody" able to change the course of world events.

In the wake of the crack epidemic during the 1990s, the term “black youth” became synonymous with “predator” in the minds of the general public (Males 1996; Males 1999). Ideas such as the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime” ushered in a public assault on black youth and their communities. Mike Males (1999) documented how xenophobic notions of youth as well as fear of crime helped to shape public policy hostile to African American youth during the 1990s. Legislators responded by crafting public policy that underscored that to be black, young and poor was also to be criminal (Males and Macallair 2000). These negative perceptions were reinforced through public policies that increased repression through institutions such as schools, law enforcement and juvenile justice systems (Butts October 1999). From 1994 to 2000, for example, 43 states instituted legislation which facilitated the transfer of children to adult court. The result of these laws was the dismantling of a long-standing belief on the part of juvenile courts that special protections and rehabilitation were necessary to protect children and youth from the effects of the adult justice system. As a result, in 1996, African American youth were six times more likely to be incarcerated and received longer sentences than their white counterparts in Los Angeles County. When charged with the same violent crime, blacks were nine times more likely to be sentenced; for drug offenses they were sent to prison 48 times more often than whites charged with the same crimes (Poe-Yamagata and Jones 2000).

Black youth in urban communities struggle to “not get caught up” in complex systems of control and containment, and their identities are often constructed in resistance to racist stereotypes and unjust public policies. Their struggle for identity is played out through the expression of new and/or revived cultural forms such as hip-hop culture, rap music and/or various forms of political or religious nationalism which redefine, reassert and constantly reestablish what it means to be urban and black. These forms of identity are organic expressions of racial meaning that emerge out of a context of struggle within urban environments. For example, during the Black Power movement, the Godfather of soul music James Brown captured the essence of the era for many urban blacks in the slogan “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” The term “Black Power” itself was coined by Willie Ricks and made popular by Stokely Carmichael, both leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the height of black frustration with the slow pace of the Civil Rights movement. The common theme between all these expressions of black identity is that they all define blackness as a form of resistance to negative black images.

The dearth of black youth political organizations today complicates the relationship between racial identity and politics. Where once there was a visible intersection of race and political identity among black youth, racial and political identity for black youth now is often marginalized in multiracial coalitions where no single political issue is defined by black youth themselves or in local grassroots organizations that lack a coherent political agenda and have little broader influence. As a result, expressions of racial and political identities are channeled into what Robin Kelly refers to as Afrocentric versus Ghettocentric politics within black youth culture. From the Afrocentric perspective, race and political identity are reconstituted in ways that acknowledge and celebrate Africa. Rejecting white supremacist ideas of black identity, youth take on African names, adopt African styles of dress, and change their hairstyle (locks, Afro, twists) to celebrate African standards of beauty. These styles are not simply fads, but often represent changes in political consciousness. Similarly, the Ghettocentric perspective also reflects racial and political identities. Rather than focusing on Africa, however, Ghettocentric culture calls attention to the political and racial realities of “life in the hood.” Ghettocentric identities embrace economic struggles, celebrate “the block” or particular neighborhoods, and exposes racist police practices. Both Afrocentric and Ghettocentric identities are mediated through hip-hop culture and therefore at times converge. They represent two important ways that race and political identities are shaped among black youth in urban communities.

Social, Economic, Political Contexts and Transformative Resistance

The term resistance has been used extensively to explain various aspects of African American youth behavior. Commonly referred to as oppositional resistance, scholars use the term to explain school failure, delinquent behavior and violence (Willis 1977; Ogbu 1990; Fordham 1996). Oppositional resistance can be conceptualized as a set shared values, believes and attitudes that reject dominant social norms and contribute to behaviors that make it difficult to achieve. However, resistance can be a useful strategy for achievement and success (Akom 2003). Akom (2003) illustrates how the Nation of Islam serves as key mediators of social capital among black youth in his ethnography of educational achievement among black youth in a Philadelphia high school. He illustrates how cultural resistance among black youth members of the Nation of Islam supports the development of a black achievement ideology where academic success supports their notions of what it means to be black. I call this transformative resistance, where African American youth challenge negative stereotypes and engage in local political struggles over quality of life issues.

On Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, in my former capacity as Executive Director of Leadership Excellence—a grassroots youth organization in Oakland, California—I along with several youth coordinators would hold workshops and activities about pressing issues related to black youth. Through group discussions, political education and activities, youth developed a political understanding about juvenile justice, racism, poverty and how these social issues shape their lives and communities. Our activities would push young people to understand systemic and root causes of social inequality. For example, we would asked all 30 youth to sit quietly and simply stand if certain statements were true for them. We would read statements such as “stand if you or your parents have access to health care, stand if your parents own your home, stand if you can walk to a grocery store from your house, stand if you can walk to a bank in your neighborhood.” That many of them remain sitting visually expressed the systemic nature of economic and racial marginalization. Activities such as these facilitate new forms of political consciousness that allow black youth to identify injustice in their everyday lives and to advocate for themselves. This form of resistance connects the personal to the political dimensions of civic and political life.

Lateefa, a 16 year old mother illustrates this point. Upon learning that she was pregnant, she went to sign up for a free childcare center at her school that allows for parenting mothers to complete school without having to dropout in order to care for their children. When she went to register for the program, she was told that the school board had decided to close the center and discontinue the program due to a lack of enrollment, leaving Lateefa without childcare and the opportunity to finish high school. Rather than accepting the district’s decision, Lateefa’s political consciousness framed the closure of the center as a denial of her and other pregnant student’s right to access to education. By challenging the district’s decision to close the center, she also conceptualized the closure as, “writing off black pregnant girls as statistics who weren’t interested in graduating anyway.”

Lateefa explained to me how she organized 12 other teen mothers and forced the superintendent to keep the childcare center open by bringing their small children to a press conference led by the superintendent and handing him each child one by one. When he asked what they were doing, they responded, “We need someone to watch our children while we go to school. If you don’t reopen this center, then maybe you can watch our children when we go to school and try to get an education!” Transformative resistance reframed Lateefa’s personal issue from a powerless black and pregnant teen statistic to an active community member with the capacity to challenge the school district to meet her needs as a new mother. Ultimately, as a result of the center re-opening, Lateefa graduated from high school and now attends San Jose State University.

Transformative resistance is an important aspect of black youth political behavior. By developing a political understanding of personal issues such as pregnancy, black youth political behavior is often times expressed through these forms of resistance. My own experience with black youth and their relationship to social, economic and political reality has largely been through working in communities where they struggle against police brutality and misconduct, rampant violence, and economic insecurity. Over 15 years I worked with hundreds of youth through a transformative resistance process where Black youth resistance is linked to political struggles for equity and justice in their lives and in their communities. Transformative resistance is precisely the capacity to cultivate and sustain what Melucci called “submerged networks” of everyday political life where actors produce and practice alternative frameworks of meaning, social relations, and collective identity below the horizon of established or officially recognized institutions” (Gregory 1998). While youth (under the ages of 18) cannot vote, have little power to change policies and laws, and limited access to institutional politics, transformative resistance is often spawned through attempts to confront personal challenges in their lives. Unlike oppositional resistance, which views resistance as contributing to educational failure and a host of youth problems, transformative resistance is linked to social change and allows black youth to reject self blame for personal problems and fosters a critical worldview that is informed by their particular social, economic and political position.

Hip-Hop Culture and the Politics of Relevance

Observers of African American youth have without doubt witnessed new and vibrant forms of civic and political activities. These new forms of politics include organizing local political hip-hop shows where poets, rappers and musicians provide entertainment combined with political education, and distributing politically “conscious” hip-hop CDs on street corners. In 2004, we witnessed the first National Political Hip Hop convention as a way to garner the resources and energy of the hip hop generation, who have been isolated from politics as usual, to craft a platform relevant to the needs of millions of disenfranchised youth and young adults.

A local example occurred in the spring of 2000 when I was working with a group of about 15 youth from Leadership Excellence in Oakland. This group of young people joined forces with Boots Riley, leader of the political rap group The Coup, in order to “get into the community and educate and organize black youth about the Juvenile Justice Crime Bill” that would allow courts to sentence juveniles as if they were adults. Early one morning we rented a large flatbed truck and loaded it with a very large PA system, turntables, microphones and speakers. We met Boots and planned to drive to parts of Oakland that often are neglected by even the most progressive community organizers. We held what we called “Guerilla hip hop”—impromptu, mobile political concerts with music, rapping and political education in local parks, strip malls and street corners where young people hang out. With loud speakers, a DJ, music and Boots as a main attraction, we distributed thousands of flyers and spoke to hundreds of youth who would be most impacted by this legislation. Through hip-hop, we were able to communicate the urgency of their political participation and begin building a base of support from black youth themselves.

This form of organizing appealed to both the youth who participated and to those we recruited. Hip-hop culture can encourage black youth to change their thinking about community problems, and act toward creating a more equitable world. While progressive hip-hop culture functions as the voice of resistance for America’s black youth, it also provides a blueprint for the possibilities of social change and has been utilized as a politicizing tool to inform youth about significant social problems (Rose 1994; Kelley 1996). Since the mid-1980s, groups such as Public Enemy seized the attention of many urban youth of color because of their ability to boldly criticize and reveal serious contradictions in American democracy. Rap artists such as Chuck D, KRS1, and Arrested Development called for youth to raise their consciousness about American society and become more critical about the conditions of poverty. Hip-hop groups such as Dead Prez, The Coup, and the Roots today provide black youth with an analysis of racism, poverty, sexism, and other forms of oppression. For many black youth, hip-hop culture is a vehicle for expressing pain, anger, and the frustration of oppression through rap music, style of dress, language and poetry. Additionally, hip-hop culture is also used to organize, to inform, and to politicize youth about local and national issues.

In many ways, progressive hip-hop represents a new “politics of relevance” as it calls attention to critical issues that confront black youth. For example, while youth organized to defeat Proposition 21 in California -a bill that would give courts broad powers to try youth as adults and sentence youth to adult facilities- youth organizations, community activists, and local hip hop artists joined forces and organized hip hop concerts to conduct mass political education and distributed flyers with youthful graffiti art that encouraged disenfranchised youth to vote and participate in the political process. Some commented on how a lot of young people do not read newspapers; or even if you pass them a flyer, they might read it, but it's not as real to them because it's an old way of organizing. Hip-hop brings new tools by which to organize young people.

Although hip-hop can be politically inspiring, it also is sometimes fatalistic.1 The key is to acknowledge the politicizing potential that hip-hop culture has on disenfranchised youth and how it carries the possibility to unite youth through common experiences of suffering and common struggles of resistance.

Concluding Comments

Social science research must consider how economic, social and political realities intimately shape the civic and political engagement among black youth. A deeper understanding of these forces will yield greater insight into new forms of politics among African American youth. For example, the Black Panther Party’s popularity among disenfranchised black youth during the late 60s and early 70s was rooted in new articulations of black youth identity as well as new forms of politics which linked racial inequality to larger economic and political issues of justice (Newton 1973; Hilliard and Weise 2002).

The challenge for social science researchers is to acknowledge the struggles, victories and defeats in black youth’s lives without romanticizing resistance while simultaneously paying careful attention to elements of nihilism in hip hop culture. Somewhere between resistance and hopelessness lays the reality of the day-to-day struggles youth must navigate. This reality holds the promise of a richer understanding of resistance and other important forms of political behavior which can be found on street corners where young people connect, in classrooms where they are inspired, and in the small, under-funded storefront nonprofits that change lives on shoestring budgets. These forms of civic behavior represent uncharted political territory in our understanding of democracy. The extent to which social science researchers can identify these practices and uncover how they inhibit or contribute to new forms of political behavior, the further we will move forward in our understanding of democratic engagement.


1 For a good example of fatalistic hip-hop listen to Tupac Shakor's Machievelli. For political inspiration Lauren Hill or Dead Prez.


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