Hiding in Plain Sight: The Role of Youth in Politics and Activism

By Jennifer Earl

When Parkland students began their press for gun control, public reaction varied from inspired, to surprised, to dismissive. Critics charged that the students didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to be involved in the presumptively adult-oriented world of politics, although others were simply surprised because they bought into the idea that young people are not that engaged. But, for people who have been studying youth political engagement, their activism was less surprising than it was to see adults actually pay attention to it.

This post makes two interrelated arguments: (1) youth have historically been central to social movements and collective action, but their unique role is often unappreciated; (2) the underappreciation of youth activists as youth reflects a broader set of political exclusion and marginalization processes that scholars risk falling into along with the broader public.

First, for the easier point, which is actually reflected in the prompt writers were given for this month’s dialogue: youth have been integral to movements for a long time. It is impossible to imagine the civil rights movement without young people at lunch counter sit-ins or young people recruited into Freedom Summer. The Free Speech Movement and the broader New Left would have been nothing without younger people. Today, where would Black Lives Matter be without people under the age of 30? Under 25? Occupy? If one looks at student and college activism more broadly, it is clear that young people are often active. And, despite fears inspired by Putnam’s work, a great deal of research now shows that young people have and continue to be politically engaged, particularly when we look at activism and broader “participatory politics.” Parkland was just another step in a long march of youth activism.

In social movement scholarship, though, a tension exists between empirically recognizing the role and importance of young people and caring about that theoretically. As a field, we try to understand youth engagement by capturing aspects of youth that seem salient to adults—biographical availability is a great example. Youth must be active because they are so relatively unencumbered from where we sit. Youth must be active because they are in environments that promote activism, like adult-made college campuses. But, there is a small cadre of folks who have made understanding youth activism from young people’s perspective central to their work (e.g., see contributions in this special issue).

From my vantage point, the bigger questions are not why youth were and are engaged, but rather why adults are so surprised and why young people as youth receive such scant attention in social movement studies? My argument is that we as adults have constructed a social and political system that sees youth as deficient and in need of adult salvation and we have built a political world where counterfactuals to that are ignored and hidden. This allows adults to see what we expect to see. This is true inside and outside of the academy, although there are notable exceptions in both arenas.

Youth are not alone in this. Other subordinated groups have experienced similar processes across time. It is useful then, to step back and see what a larger system that supports the political suppression of a group involves.

First, if a group is going to be politically subjugated, superordinates need to devalue that group and see it as lesser-than the “rest of us,” and as in need of superordinates’ “benevolent” help or control. Look back to Dred Scott or early gender and employment rulings like Muller v. Oregon to see how blatant this motif has been in the subjugation of African-Americans and women. It is baked into the essence of the widely-held youth deficit model today.

Second, evidence contrary to this view must be hidden for the view to survive. This one is complicated and takes a lot of effort.

One way to accomplish this is to just not talk about the group or their interests. The practiced ignorance of whites to the everyday dangers, injuries, and insults that African-Americans have and continue to face is consequential. Major mobilizations, such as Freedom Summer and Black Lives Matter are built around breaches in that practiced ignorance – for Freedom Summer that breach occurred through media coverage gained by placing young whites in the kinds of hostile environs African-Americans had long endured; for Black Lives Matter, videos make denial so much more difficult, although prosecutors and juries show us denial is still not impossible. Enter Putnam for youth and the wide scale youth-disengagement scare. We didn’t need to talk about young people because they were not interested. This gets harder to maintain when young people are being murdered so frequently in their classrooms and speaking up about it.

Of course, sometimes a dominant group does acknowledge the independent existence of, and even accomplishments of, a subordinated group. But, it is easier to continue political subjugation if those accomplishments are non-political. Whites can appreciate the accomplishments of African American athletes so long as they don’t kneel during the anthem. For young people, we can talk about sports, science fairs, music, and even prodigies. Think about pre-Parkland news coverage of young people as young people and you will likely realize young people do get acknowledged in non-political arenas, but in ways that help portray them as proto-adults without political interests even if they are winning spelling bees.

But, Parkland reminded adults that young people have political interests that reflect their own social positions and identities—in this case, as a generation that has been reared and educated in the shadow and threat of gun violence. But, allowing groups to have their own voices—let alone voices that reflect larger intersectional identities—is dangerous stuff, and so often adults do what dominant groups have done for a long time: if you have to talk about youth and politics, speak for them instead of letting them speak. We act on that deficit model and talk about them, for them, and give them marching orders, but we rarely ask, invite, or listen. Women know this dynamic well: it doesn’t take long for most women to think of a time that a man has spoken for them or given them “help” or “advice” as they mansplained something. I am not denying that all people—younger and older—need to learn, but I am contesting the idea that youth are inactive recipients of political socialization and that we can speak for them, especially without listening first.

Sometimes all that effort to keep marginalized members from speaking fails and people insist on speaking for themselves and actually get the chance. One option for minimizing that rupture in the manufactured reality is to denigrate their modes of action and hold them to different standards than you would hold others. Whether we think of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., we can all think of examples of this. So too for youth. People say in some form or another: young people just don’t do activism, or politics, right.

With all these denials of political identity and agency in place, it is easier to see young people as small, deficient adults. But, they are not: they have their own structural positions, capacities, and structural disadvantages, and social and collective identities. Movements rarely recognize this, and forget this to their detriment.

In sum, I argue that it is less surprising that youth are powerful and political but more surprising that we are collectively taking a moment to recognize that. The next step is to start to unravel the deficit model and realize that the manufactured reality we see about youth engagement, which has been systematically challenged by research on youth engagement, is a symptom of the problems youth face in trying to be active, not the result of it. Indeed, they are active despite these disadvantages and despite our collective disbelief.

To be sure, this is an intentionally brash argument made even more brash by framing it as a general subjugation process, and by blunt, and therefore controversial and less nuanced comparisons to the subjugation of other groups. I don’t mean to push those comparisons too far, but making them allows people to appreciate the argument from a different angle. Also, one cannot say systems are so much “designed” in a functional way to accomplish subjugation, but that doesn’t mean they are not effective at it. Of course, it is also true that young people need support, facilitation, and allies (especially ones that see youth as active architects of their own futures). But, with these potentially serious drawbacks in mind, my point remains: we need to remember that youth are a group, have interests, social positions, and identities (even intersectional actual identities—being a young, Latinx lesbian is not the same as being a Latinx older lesbian), and have the potential to be powerful, whether we recognize it or not. It’s time as a literature that we stop letting youth activism hide in plain sight and acknowledge the youth in youth activism.


1 Comment

Filed under Millennials and Activism

One response to “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Role of Youth in Politics and Activism

  1. It stood out to me when you said there’s somewhat of a manufactured reality about youth engagement. I want to learn more about my local parliamentary representatives and prepare my family to become more engaged in current issues in our area. Thanks for helping me see the potential political engagement of our two teenage daughters in a new way.


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