Cathy Cohen’s Democracy Remixed

Perspectives on Politics (vol. 10, no 3, Sept. 2012) includes a symposium on Cathy J. Cohen’s book, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. Cohen studies young African Americans’ political thinking at a time when they are widely stereotyped and disparaged–by Black leaders, among others–for their personal behavior. Cohen explores the political relevance of their attitudes toward sexuality and other conventionally “personal” issues. She uses interviews and surveys to convey the often nuanced and sophisticated ideas of Black youth.

I organize my own review* around the axis of structure versus agency, beginning thus:

In 2009, in the city of Chicago where Cathy J. Cohen lives and teaches, at least 290 school children were shot. Most of the people on both ends of the guns were young African Americans. If the fundamental responsibility of a government is protect citizens’ lives, then such violence puts the very legitimacy of the regime in question, to say nothing of the human tragedy that each gunshot represents.

An epidemic of violence also raises a contested and troubling question of responsibility, or (in more academic terms) of agency versus structure. From one perspective, firing a gun at another young person is a choice. The vast majority of young black Chicagoans would never do such a thing. If citizens see the perpetrators of gun violence as having agency, they are likely to blame them for their choice and respond with surveillance and punishment. They may also be tempted to direct moral disapproval at the group to which they mentally assign the perpetrator: in this case, young African Americans. Dropping out of high school, using illegal drugs, and having premarital sex can also be seen as condemnable individual choices requiring discipline, deterrence, and moral suasion.

Structural explanations, in contrast, look to large social and institutional factors—not only intentional policies but also examples of inaction or inertia. From this perspective, the huge and lightly regulated market for hand guns; the poor performance of urban public schools and police; the strikingly low ratio of adults to children in some poor urban neighborhoods;1 the vast prison system that provides economic benefits to companies, employees, and communities; the persistence of racial discrimination in labor markets; the lack of after-school opportunities and programs; the broad public glorification of violence; and even the disappearance of 650,000 manufacturing jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area since 1960—all would rank as background causes of teen violence.

The African American youth in Cohen’s book hold complex and self-conscious ideas about agency versus structure in their own lives. I argue in my review for the importance of a third topic: political agency. This means neither making individual choices nor being affected by large forces, but rather shaping the world together,  intentionally and collectively. Cohen promotes political agency by giving voice to young Black Americans in her writing and via the Black Youth Project, which she runs. I end with a call for more thinking about large-scale policies that would promote youth political agency.

Carmen Sirianni’s review is the most critical. In this short blog post, I don’t want to summarize his critique or the relevant aspects of Cohen’s book (both are too complicated), but this example gives a flavor of the dispute. “Obama thinks that passing saggy pants laws [is] a ‘waste of time,’ but, he continues, ‘having said that, brothers should pull up their pants’ (p. 142) as a sign of respect for their mothers, grandmothers, and other people in general.” Here are two ways to think about that case:

  1. African American youth are already subject to damaging stereotypes from all kinds of authority figures, and the last thing they need is for the first Black president to pile on. His rhetoric of personal responsibility makes it almost impossible for others to get a hearing for structural explanations of things like teen violence. Worse, Obama represents the neoliberal, carceral state. He should promote justice before he tells anyone else how to dress.
  2. Although how high you wear a belt is an arbitrary matter, setting norms is generally an appropriate role for leaders. Norms strengthen communities. Teenagers are going to break norms. That is no reason for panic, but also no reason for leaders to abandon a paternalistic stance toward children. Generations negotiate their roles through just such struggles.

These are simplified positions that may not reflect Cohen’s or Sirianni’s views accurately, but they suggest the terrain of an important argument.

In my review, I try to convey some of the emotional impact of this book, but Taeku Lee probably puts it better. He writes:

On a very personal note, the net result is that Cohen pulls off something uncommon at the hands of a scholar (especially a political scientist): her work evokes emotions. I do not mean here the eruptions of ire, petulance, and provocation that often result when one academic finds the work of another to be inept, polemical, or mean-spirited. Rather, in reading the book, one cannot help but feel the sense of hope and despair, anger and pride that comes from kindling the bonds of human connection. Cohen achieves this by being unafraid of making a mess: She willingly mixed the politics of her personal convictions with the science in her data analysis; she looks for agency where others might be content to find only structure; she sees in the dimly lit margins shadows of seldom heard, yet at times luminous, voices. In short, she brilliantly performs the dictates of a remix: to breath new life into a tune by sampling fresh beats and, by doing so, extending that tune’s relevance and improving the fidelity of its original aspirations.

*Peter Levine (2012). Race in America. Perspectives on Politics, Volume 10, Issue 03, September 2012 pp 757-760

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.