Recent incidents of youth crime have elicited a rise in curfew laws around cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland where teens can actually be detained by police for hanging out in their own communities past a certain hour. Not surprisingly, such curfew laws are common in the U.S. (around 200 cities have them) but almost unheard of in other nations. Why is this not surprising? Because the U.S. is notorious for its declining sense of meaning and connection between citizens.
African-centered psychologist Wade W. Nobles has critiqued Greco-Roman based U.S. culture, stating that “Western man’s consciousness is shaped by the necessity to perceive his own sense of separateness and individuality as all important…the resultant meaning of a human being is that a human is an object, which is self-sufficient, aggressively independent, and perceives other beings and nature as something to be controlled and dominated.” (Seeking the Sakhu, pg. 159) Chronicled for years by writers of popular books like The Lonely Crowd, Habits of the Heart, Bowling Alone, and Empire of Illusion, this culture’s tendency to foster narcissism and individualism while increasingly destroying bonds of knowing and trust within communities has seen its latest manifestation among the youth. Alienation from the larger society, lack of attachment to caring adults, lack of meaningful work, and plain boredom account for current increases in crime and violence among young people all across this country. The recent flash mobs are not like protests of the 1960s, when youth rebelled in order to call attention to demands for justice and equality. No, this is a different type of acting out, one unique to our overstimulated 21st century culture. Flash mobs, gun violence, gang fights…Make no mistake, this is an existential crisis we are witnessing.
And how do we elders respond? Like any dysfunctional parent- with punishment. We should be greatly disturbed to see conversations about youth violence revolve around curfews, law enforcement, and how much jail time is appropriate rather than how to create more and better spaces for our children to pursue significant, constructive life goals while forming social bonds with their peers. Curfew laws are disproportionately enforced upon Black youth, and aren’t effective in that they don’t actually reduce overall crime rates. So why are we not talking about how to give these kids what they truly lack…not a criminal charge, but a sense that they have an important place in the world? Why are we not talking about building community centers, revitalizing rites of passage programs and community rituals that allow youth to feel pulled in to a greater purpose? Why are we encouraging kids to get jobs but not to build authentic relationships and productive institutions within their communities? The solution to youth crime is a paradigm shift, and it begins with more purpose in their lives, not more police on the streets.
Like most people in the hip hop generation, I tire of listening to my elders’ wax nostalgic about “back in the day” when everybody knew everybody, neighbors would spank your kids for you, and children were free to roam the neighborhood all day (at least, until the street lights came on) without worrying about their safety. I know that’s not the world we live in today. Our contemporary culture is such that people move long distances away from kin, work long hours away from their children, fear their neighbors more often than trust them, require children to spend their days in various institutions (day cares, schools, workplaces, etc.) rather than with a relative or friend, and measure their success by how easily they can afford to get away from other people. Add to that a political environment in which all sides agree on two solid facts: our leaders are typically lying through their teeth, and the system is broken (although their ideas on how to fix it depends on which lying group of politicians they support).
The result of all these factors? An unusual number of adults in this country don’t know, don’t believe, or don’t care about community issues because they are, whether consciously or not, tired of the meaningless rhetoric and spectacle that constitutes much of American culture and politics. And we don’t feel particularly concerned about the countless members of our own community that we never quite have the time or energy to meet and get to know. We fear the youth on the street rather than see them as vital members of the community. Our children are aware of this fact, and they’ve got the energy to show us with their behavior just how tired they are of our crap.
Our children are picking up on the bankruptcy of mainstream culture, the void in which so many of us have resigned ourselves to exist. So the questions that our kids are asking us with their outbursts–Why are we here? How are we to relate to ourselves, each other, and the larger world? What are we to do with our lives? – can’t be answered by a society of adults only interested in showing who’s boss and maintaining a façade of societal order. Youth naturally need guides, and we can’t expect parents alone to shield their children from a perversely alienating culture. I won’t give the tired “It take a village…” rant. But I will suggest that a true sense of caring, nurturing community is a prerequisite for respectful youth. African-centered psychologist Na’im Akbar reminds us, “Respect for the young by the adults and the respect for the adults by the young is not simply a matter of proper conduct; it is an outgrowth of the recognition of a spiritual core or essence in all of us.” (Know Thy Self, pg. 23)
Until we form families, neighborhoods, and a society that honestly mean these youth well, they should be pissed, and they will be destructive. Until we as elders are willing to give up our attachments to personal comforts and private property in order to create the sense of community and collective accountability that these kids seek, we might as well stop talking trash about the “youth of today.” Their actions might seem random and without reason, but deep inside I think we all know that such acts never really are.
We’ve already done enough harm to these kids – turning them into insatiable consumers at the mall, forcing them to act like test-taking robots in the classroom, and now expecting them to scram so our precious public areas won’t be sullied with their presence. Our efforts to punish and control young people into submission, while never providing them with a sense of identity or purpose, will only heighten their angst and rage, and make destroying everything in sight (including one another) seem like that much more of a fun thing to do.