and the Implications for Public Policy
by Pedro A. Noguera
America is a violent society. All of the data on inter-personal violence show this to be the case. We lead the world in deaths by handguns, in juvenile violence and victimization, and in the number of people who possess firearms (Donziger 1996; Currie 1985). Violence in America is so pervasive and so central to our national identity that in both its mundane and extreme forms, it permeates the fabric of our society.
Public policy in response to the threat of violence in the U.S. has largely been characterized by an emphasis on the punitive. Traditionally, law enforcement, the courts and incarceration have served as the primary means for deterring violence. This has been especially true for the last twenty years, and as a result, the U.S. prison population has grown dramatically (Waquant 2000). Given the costs of this approach, in both human and financial terms, and given the disproportionate impact of these policies on low-income African American and Latino communities, the need to challenge the direction of policy and to propose alternatives could never be greater.
The purpose of this paper is three-fold. First, I will make the case that because violence is an integral part of American culture, punitive approaches to dealing with it are unlikely to succeed in making society safer. Secondly, because many of the deterrent strategies that have been implemented by policy makers target young people, I will show why it is important to incorporate youth perspectives on violence as way of deepening our understanding of the issues surrounding violence. Finally, drawing on my own research with young people and schools in urban areas, I will put forward a set of policy principles that I believe can be used to develop more reasonable and humane violence prevention policies and strategies.
Violence is central to the character of American society. In fact, violence is so much at the core of American identity that U.S. history is typically taught through a series of narratives about war: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and I, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. ( 1 ) Prior to Vietnam we liked to claim that we had never lost a war and that our side has always been the righteous one. However, even after the debacle of Vietnam, our leaders continue to take pride in the fact that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth, and the only remaining superpower. Prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center Building and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Americans felt impervious to attacks from foreign enemies since the mainland has not come under attack since the War of 1812. Even as large parts of the world have suffered from wars in which innocent civilians were the primary victims, Americans have been able to view war with considerable detachment, often from the comfort of their living rooms. Our sense of invulnerability comes from knowing that we are the global policeman, the arbiter of conflicts between nations (at least when we choose to be), and the largest seller of arms on the international market. ( 2 ) After the terrorist attacks we may feel less omnipotent, but our leaders reassure us that we will be safe because we remain the most dominant, most well armed and most powerful nation on the planet.
I begin with these observations on the centrality of violence in American culture because I believe it is the history and culture of violence in American society that sets the context for analyzing perceptions of violence among adolescents. Although young people are increasingly the target of law enforcement initiatives aimed at curtailing violence, the violent behavior observed among American youth does not occur in a social void. In a nation founded upon genocide, slavery, conquest and colonization, it should not surprising that this legacy of violence manifests itself frequently in the present, and especially among our youth. Throughout our past we have rationalized the use of violence to obtain what our leaders claimed were noble ends: our manifest destiny, the triumph over communism, and to secure peace through strength. ( 3 ) Even now, whenever our military leaders find it necessary to drop bombs on Iraq, Sudan, or some other land labeled a rogue nation, the incidental murder of innocent civilians is typically rationalized without remorse as collateral damage.
Because violence is not merely a thing of the past, a brutal but out-dated habit which time might render forgettable, finding ways to reduce the incidence of it is not easy. It remains a constant part of our contemporary lives penetrating our language, our entertainment, our politics and our social relationships. Violence is ubiquitous and as such, it is difficult to envision how we might escape our history to move forward to a more peaceful social order.
I was reminded of how Americas legacy of violence influences present day issues when I went with my family last Fall to see an exhibit called Without Sanctuary: 100 years of Lynching. The exhibit was on display at the New York Historical Society and it featured photographs, newspaper articles, post cards and artifacts (these included pieces of clothing, hair and body parts) from lynchings that had occurred in the past. Aside from the physical cruelty meted out at these public executions -- the quartering, tar and feathering, and burning of black corpses -- the most disturbing aspect of the exhibit were the photos that captured the faces of spectators. While some depicted angry crowds enthusiastically engaged in vigilante justice, others showed what appeared to be family outings at which well-dressed observers were casually gathered to observe and show support for these public displays of carnage.
As I discussed these images with my children and tried to explain how the practice of lynching could have been tolerated for so long, I realized that at least some of the participants in the photos were probably still alive. When I pointed this out, my nine year-old son asked how those who participated in the lynchings had been affected by the experience. It was a good question, but one I could not answer. It was hard to imagine that one could partake in such brutal acts of violence and not experience some long-term effect. But how these effects were manifest I could not explain.
Although lynchings are no longer common or sanctioned, public executions (albeit in a more sanitized form) and everyday violence continues to be a constant feature of the American experience. It infiltrates our consciousness through cartoons and video games, through torrid news accounts of street crime in the tabloids, and horrific accounts of violence perpetrated within families and between lovers. Even my nine year-old son has no difficulty providing numerous examples of they ways in which violence permeates our language, our entertainment, and the sports we watch on television.
Those who seek to promote non-violence face incredible odds given the degree to which American culture is obsessed with violence. We identify too much with violence to free ourselves from it and we feel too little remorse about our violent past to extricate ourselves from the bloody legacy. In fact, we relish violence and within appropriate contexts (i.e. movies, sports, etc.) we admire those who excel at perpetrating it. In short, we get off on it and because we do it will not be easy for us to reduce or contain it. Violence is an inseparable part of the American character, it is who we are, and until we face up to our national obsession with violence, it is unlikely that we will make much progress in substantially reducing its occurrence.
For recovering alcoholics the first step to recovery is an admission of addiction. Similarly, it seems logical that a society that has been addicted to the use of violence must come to see that it may not be possible to achieve a greater degree of safety if it continues to treat violence as a legitimate means of exercising power. To hope for greater peace while simultaneously resisting efforts to limit the availability of guns, is to ignore a blatant contradiction that most young people recognize as duplicitous. Unlike many adults who learn to accept certain fundamental contradictions as normal, children often find hypocritical stances difficult to reconcile, and duplicity is rampant in America. Public service announcements urge young people to consider abstinence from sex, even as they are bombarded by advertising images that use sex to sell products. Similarly, there is no shortage of politicians who drape themselves in the moral trappings of Christianity as they champion the use of the death penalty, even upon the mentally retarded. Finally, there are the police who are held up as trustworthy role models by programs like Project DARE, even though in communities where poor children live they may operate more like marauding predators, harassing teenagers and occasionally shooting unarmed people in their violent pursuit of criminals.
To the degree that we recognize that violence must be seen as a cultural phenomenon, we must also understand that manifestations of violence are rooted in the structure of inequality in American society. Such a premise compels us to reject the idea that violence operates like an infectious disease, preying upon victims who are vulnerable and lack the immunity provided by security. To treat violence as part of the culture and structure of American society, and not merely as a social defect associated with certain subgroups or maladjusted individuals, is to acknowledge that violence can not be reduced unless we are willing to address its social and economic roots. Such recognition compels us to see that violence cannot be countered merely through increased law enforcement and incarceration, or through legislative reforms that increase penalties on violent offenders. Instead, operating from a cultural and structural framework, we are compelled to see that violence can only be countered through measures that strike at the roots of social inequality and through various forms of concerted cultural action that challenge its normalcy.
To anyone but the most naïve romantic, it may seem highly unlikely that Americas fixation with violence could ever be reversed. I share this skepticism, but I also know that cultures do change. However, they generally change very slowly and not always in ways that are predictable or subject to control. Yet despite the difficulty involved, we also have fairly recent examples, such as the campaign against smoking which show that even addictive habits supported by slick marketing and a powerful industry, can be undermined through concerted efforts. In relation to violence, cultural change may be even more difficult to bring about given that the promotion of violence remains a profitable enterprise for manufacturers of weapons and the media, and given the bizarre notion that gun ownership is an inalienable right. Nonetheless, even as we come to grips with the difficulty of the task it should not lead us to conclude that nothing can be done.
Violence is a learned behavior, and in schools and other social institutions, it is an integral aspect of the socialization to which children are subjected. Again such a perspective runs contrary to conventional explanations of violence that have tended to treat perpetrators of violence as deviants and people suffering from personality disorders. ( 4 ) By recognizing violence as a behavior that is learned by children and by exposing the ways in which it is routinized in everyday life, it becomes possible to move away from the notion that violence is a social pathology perpetrated by bad people. Such a finding does not rationalize or condone violent behavior, nor does it let perpetrators of violence off the hook. There are indeed some people who are dangerous and a threat to others, and in no way do I mean to suggest that those who perpetrate acts of violence are without moral culpability. Rather, the most important question that any serious investigation into violence in America must confront is why does American society produce so many violent people? Similarly, if we genuinely seek to reduce and prevent incidents of violence we must also attempt to understand how violent behavior, whether perpetrated by the State, institutions, or individuals, comes to be seen as a normal and legitimate means to get what one wants.
Exploring these themes with adolescents is an important way to go about understanding Americas preoccupation with violence. The perspectives held by adolescents toward violence provide a unique window through which to understand how violence is enacted and how its meaning is conveyed in a variety of settings. Lacking power due to their age and status, young people, especially those who are poor and of color, are far more likely to be victims of violence than any other segment of society (Gilligan 1996). Some, particularly Black and Latino males, are statistically also more likely to be perpetrators of violence, and the two phenomena -- victimization and perpetration, are not unrelated (Earls 1991). ( 5 ) Increasingly, young people embody our collective fears about violence. This is true despite the fact that young people are far more likely to be victimized by adults than vice versa (Noguera 1995). As the objects of our fears and concerns, young people have much to tell with regard to the lessons they learn about violence from the adults charged with protecting them.
Additionally, analyses of the perceptions of young people are important to the study of violence because their views on justice, equality and power are often more honest and forthright. The candor conveyed through the voices of youth is both a product of this particular stage of emotional and psychological development (Erickson 1968), and also a result of the vulnerability inherent in their status. Unlike adults who can often avoid circumstances where their movements are controlled or where they may be subject to varying levels of subordination and disrespect, young people find themselves in these situations often. How they respond to the experience of subjugation, surveillance and bullying, can provide us with important lessons about the ways in which violence is mediated in institutional contexts.
The most obvious and perhaps most threatening forms of violence occur at the level of interpersonal relationships, between friends and family, between lovers and strangers. However, State sanctioned violence also plays an important role in perpetuating the normalization of violence and the criminalization of subordinate populations. The State is the only institution in society that possesses the right to use violence (Alavi 1982). Given that the State can rationalize its use of violence in the name of preserving law and order or national security, the State is in effect above reproach. As the killings in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian compound revealed, holding the State accountable for violence it perpetrates, even when the casualties are unarmed children, is extremely difficult if not impossible. It is undoubtedly for this reason that discussions of the States role in promoting violence in society are rarely considered in most of the research on this topic because the State's use of violence is taken for granted.
Despite the legitimacy it enjoys, the role of the State in promoting and rationalizing the use of violence must be the focus of critique in any study of violence in American society. To assume that the State has a vested interest in the promotion of non-violence is a mistake. We are living at a time when a greater percentage of the adult population in the United State is incarcerated than at any other point in our history (Waquant 2000). Moreover, the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population (and the imprisoned are disproportionately comprised of Black males) than any other nation in the world. Despite relatively little public scrutiny or criticism over the growth of the prison population, there is no evidence that mass incarceration has reduced the incidence (Russell 1998) of violence or the fear of it. For this reason alone, the role of the state as enforcer, jailer and executioner must be at the center of any discussion of violence. Given that many of the imprisoned are non-violent offenders, and given that prisons are perhaps the most violent institutions in our society, the need to challenge mass incarceration as State policy could never be greater. ( 6 ) Moreover, public schools are State sponsored institutions, and as such, any effort to understand the causes of violence in schools must recognize that for the State, schools function primarily as institutions of social control. ( 7 )
Published in In Motion Magazine September 30, 2001
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