Uncivil Youth: Race, Activism and Affirmative Governmentality

Uncivil Youth: Race, Activism and Affirmative Governmentality emerges in a historical moment within which renewed attention is being paid to youth organizing and activism and offers a refreshingly complex and exceptionally well historicized discussion of  such organizing in the contemporary neoliberal moment. Comprising equal parts analysis of nonprofit youth organizing as site of hegemonic citizen-making and ethnography of youth organizing and oppositional consciousness among the Asian and Pacific Islander youth of AYPAL, an Oakland coalition, Uncivil Youth neither glorifies youth activism nor offers a strictly cautionary tale. Rather, the book explores the nuanced “conditions of possibility” (p. 4) within which youth of color (YOC) activisms are conducted and constrained. Kwon argues that early 21st century YOC activisms must be understood as structurally situated within a hegemonic paradigm that holds “youth of color as a social threat to be managed through the competing policies of youth empowerment and youth criminalization” (p. 6). Contemporary youth organizing nonprofits, argues Kwon, turn on an “affirmative governmentality” (p. 5) that holds youth of color responsible for their own self-development and self-control under the guise of agency and empowerment.

Uncivil Youth opens with an extensive analysis of contemporary nonprofits as constituent elements of neoliberal statecraft and technologies of capital. The text subsequently focuses on the historical role of youth management programs and discourses in grooming hegemonic citizenship practices among youth. Chapter 1 examines the co-evolution of state practices of youth care and criminalization, including as these practices emerged in dialogue with the concept of youth as a category of governance itself and naturalized the idea of youth “riskiness.” The chapter includes deeply historicized analyses of youth development paradigms from the so-called child saving (and often punitive) programs of the late 19th century to the ostensibly more progressive “kid-fixing” (p. 44) and youth empowerment paradigms of more recent decades, which continue to manifest “different sides (improve versus punish) of the same logic of social control” (p. 44).  Kwon argues that, fundamentally, the “powers that promote youth empowerment are not separate from those of youth criminalization” (p. 8).

Chapter 2 examines the coeval development of youth-governing legislation and nonprofit foundations from the 1960s on. Kwon argues that these foundations and the nonprofits reliant on their funding are important sites for the diffusion of state hegemony.  For Kwon, neoliberal citizen-making is reproduced through the affirmative governmentality of elective civic engagement within these nonprofits.  This argument relies in part upon Stuart Hall’s reading of Antonio Gramsci, which posits hegemony in non-coercive moments of state administration to be dispersed among the “institutions of civil society” (p. 13) that include, in this case, youth organizing nonprofits.. In this dynamic, youth “empowerment” becomes a “strategy of self-governance [that makes] the powerless and politically apathetic act on their own behalf, but not necessarily to oppose the relations of power that made them powerless” (p.11). Oppositional identity terminologies (such as “Asian American”) also become codified and de-politicized when  institutionalized within nonprofits. Despite the fact that YOC organizing largely sees itself as oppositional to the state, Kwon argues that all nonprofit YOC organizing in fact occurs within contexts of state control.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Kwon moves into her ethnography of AYPAL youth organizing. Chapter 3 examines the successful AYPAL campaign against construction of an enlarged juvenile detention facility. This campaign offered youth a concrete platform from which they could speak to the broader issue of youth criminalization. In chapter 4, Kwon discusses AYPAL’s failed attempt to repeal the Clinton-era deportation law (IIRIRA) that was rending apart local southeast Asian families. Work on this campaign revealed to AYPAL youth the continued effects of U.S. imperial power on their own lives. In Chapter 5, Kwon concludes by discussing YOC activism as it is enmeshed with – and yet positioned against – a civil society that severely circumscribes young people’s effectiveness as democratic actors. Youth of color activisms struggle within and against against state technologies of control that include not only criminalization and demands for self-governance but also denial of voting rights to those under age 18.  Kwon therefore insists upon examining how youth activist projects are “enmeshed in multiple axes of power” (p. 127), and she cautions against the unscrupulous glorification of YOC organizing.

On the whole, Kwon’s book is neither “a traditional ethnography, nor does it rely solely on ethnographic methods” (p. 21), but instead employs multivariate sources including youth reports and archival materials to build a stimulating sort of point/counterpoint structure:  Early chapters invite readers to interrogate monolithic understandings of collective youth power.and later ethnographic chapters temper these early cautions with hopeful glimpses into the possibilities of youth collective action – even when mitigated by hegemonic forces of citizen-making. Among the book’s signal contributions is this: the willingness to complicate received understandings of the power and potential of YOC organizing by exploring the multiplex relations of power in which these youth activisms are envisioned, enacted and challenged.

A similarly significant theoretical contribution is Kwon’s expansion on the well-developed contention that “youth” as social category denotes both hope and threat to 21st century hegemonic structures. Kwon’s political analysis of youth organizing nonprofits reveals how this dichotomous youth promise/ youth threat paradigm becomes institutionalized through the conscription of presumptively  “risky” youth of color to self-empowerment programs. The book therefore contributes not only to the literatures of youth activism and social movements but also to scholarship engaged from various vantages with youth “risk” – including its cultural production and its social reproduction. Finally, from an ethnographic perspective, attention to the political conscientization and distinctive activisms of Asian and Pacific Islander youth is exceedingly timely. While recent years have witnessed a renewed attention to Latina/o youth mobilizations, less frequently documented have been those of Asian and Pacific Islander youth.

Kwon peppers her book with evocative contentions that invite expansion, and as she closes, readers can only hope that her final lines offer the first glimpse of a subsequent work: “To return to this book’s title, it may be that what we need are uncivil subjects, willing to inhabit bad citizenship in order to critique the supposed good faith of the state as a matter of governing ourselves” (p. 130).

Leah S. Stauber, University of Arizona

Kwon, Soo Ah. 2013. Uncivil Youth: Race, Activism and Affirmative Governmentality. Duke University Press. Read More at Duke University Press.

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