- Uncivil Youth: Race, Activism, and Affirmative Governmentality by Soo Ah Kwon
In recent years, much intellectual work has been given over to exploring the ways youth do, don’t, or could participate in activism. Many scholars have analyzed the ways young people organized during the civil rights era, turning to today’s youth to figure out how they might be mobilized in order to effect social change as young people did in the 1960s and 1970s. In Uncivil Youth, Soo Ah Kwon makes a distinction between the typically college-aged young people of earlier activist movements and the high-school-aged youths encouraged to organize through various after-school programs today. She exposes the uncomfortable relationship among youth of color, the U.S. neoliberal state, and the nonprofit organizations that seek to empower youth of color through organizing.
Building on Michel Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” in which citizen-subjects govern themselves, reinforcing the state’s dominance and systems of power, Kwon argues that neoliberalism affirms youth of color when they act in ways that indicate their participation in becoming better democratic subjects. More specifically, she exposes “youth organizing as a technology of affirmative governmentality exercised on youth of color at the site of nonprofit organizations” (10). Employing what she terms a “humanistic social science”—an interdisciplinary approach that brings together ethnography, history, close readings, and theory—Kwon’s “politically engaged activist ethnography” revolves around her work with the Bay Area organization called Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL) in the early 2000s. In the introduction to Uncivil Youth, she traces the shift from a welfare state to a neoliberal state that began in the late 1970s and intensified dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s. One of the key aspects of this shift is that the burden of responsibility for certain services once provided by the state has been increasingly “outsourced” to nonprofits, thereby making communities and individuals responsible for their own economic and social well-being (11–12). This change effectively transforms nonprofits into extensions of the state, rendering their efforts at empowering youth of color to speak out against injustice and influence meaningful change in the state inherently contradictory (a bind Kwon does not blame on nonprofits, but which she lays bare in order to reveal the difficulties of youth of color organizing through nonprofits, where it is frequently situated).
The first half of Kwon’s book is largely grounded in history and theory. Appropriately, the first chapter provides a focused history of the formation of “youth” as a category during the Progressive Era, which had two significant outcomes: [End Page 232] the development of special programs for “delinquent” youth and the creation of juvenile courts and detention centers. In this chapter, Kwon illustrates how programs aimed at youth targeted “poor, marginalized, immigrant, and ethnic youth” with the intention of molding them into productive citizen-subjects (27). She points out the heavily gendered behaviors the state deemed “delinquent”: young men were criminalized for idleness or vagrancy, young women for potential sexual behavior. Kwon contends that rhetorically, “delinquent” behavior has transformed into “at-risk” behavior—“at risk” emphasizing the shift from youth as risks to youth at risk and also connoting youth of color specifically—but that these gendered roots are still apparent today, made evident by the way young men of color are portrayed as “superpredators” by the media and young women of color continue to be represented as sexually promiscuous.
Building on this history of youth programs and delinquency, the second chapter exposes the innate tensions among nonprofits, youth organizing, and the neoliberal state. At the same time that she explicitly recognizes the many ways these organizations and their talented and dedicated staff benefit their communities, Kwon draws on her own experiences with AYPAL to articulate how nonprofits are subject to impositions from their funders. These funders are economic participants in the market, which Kwon identifies as the heart of a neoliberal state, and contemporary youth organizing...