Legacies of Collective Delusion: Causes of “Youth Violence”
Reading her story, I cried.
How similar she was to my teenage self!
Holed up in my hot bedroom,
singing to myself and dreaming
of getting the hell outta dodge.
But the racial stereotypes associated
with my Asian Americanness
afforded me opportunities.
Her blackness was ghettoized;
her murder, dismissed.
In an earlier piece exploring the ways in which systemic violence shapes the lives of today’s youth, we connected with students in Oakland, CA and learned of their personal experiences with violence. Highlighting the students’ stories was my attempt at achieving an interconnection between the readers and the students, whose lives might otherwise seem distant from our own realities. I wanted, as Mushim Ikeda so eloquently put it, “to surround ourselves with the living fabric of one another’s lives.” Doing so remains crucial, as the embodiment of our interconnectedness (or disconnection) grounds the central point of this second part in the Four Noble Truths Series.
In this piece, I explore the causes of systemic violence affecting youth. In a certain sense, the causes are simple. The Second Noble Truth explains that greed, delusion, and ill will, what are known as “the three poisons,” comprise the root causes of all suffering. However, the manner in which these causes have manifested through historically oppressive systems of suffering, namely global conquest, highlights the complexity of these poisons. Capitalism, the driving force of global conquest (also known as imperialism, globalization, and free trade) and American society, requires the three poisons and renders them rational ways of being. As the Cartesian dictum goes, “I think, therefore I am.” We, as an increasingly globalized society, have learned to prioritize individuated notions of self and to categorize the world around us into hierarchies of value related to their usefulness in serving “I.”
Of special concern are the ways in which imperial domination required and legitimated systems of duality where humans were separated from each other (processes of dehumanization such as the slavery of Africans by Europeans) and from the environment around them (private ownership of land and natural resources). This fundamental delusion to our interconnectedness, and its continued rationalization, produces the violent effect of systemic suffering for us all. The violence suffered by many low-income youth of color, as described in part one of this series, is merely one manifestation of our collective delusion, our learned inability to see ourselves reflected in each other and in our environments.
Capitalism requires the three poisons
and renders them rational ways of being.
It’s important to me to share that the stirring words from other Turning Wheel writers and commenters surround the writing of this piece. I’ve been reflecting on the thoughts I’ve read here on Turning Wheel Media / Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and though they are soundless, many of them have spoken clearly to me. In this vein, I’d like to practice more of the embodied presence Mushim Ikeda discusses. I come to the writing of this series as a former elementary school teacher and a current postdoctoral fellow in education. I also come to this piece as a daughter of working class Taiwanese immigrants, a sister, a partner, and a practitioner of Socially Engaged Buddhism who struggles with living mindfully in a society that prioritizes the mind and severs its connectedness with the heart. The words in this piece are inflected with my current myriad of feelings: of urgency for better conditions for our nation’s students; of anxiety in regards to personal and collective experiences of uncertainty; of heart-heaviness and inspiration from the current student led, explicitly non-violent Sunflower Movement in Taiwan; and of compassion for the family of a former Oakland Technical High School student who was slain 5 years ago.
This last feeling has been with me since I first received an email about her death—homicide number 77—in 2009. I had known this student for only a brief moment. Wanting to learn more about the circumstances of her death, I searched for news of her murder. She was one of many students of color in the city, and in the nation, whose murder was relatively insignificant to the mainstream media. Her blackness was ghettoized, her murder dismissed as simply an example of what happens in those neighborhoods to those kinds of people. Oakland.
In an article for an independent news publication, I learned something about this student that aligned my mind and heart in a profound way. She struggled with daunting feelings of alienation and to deal with this, she would often sing by herself in her room. Reading this, I cried. How similar she was to my teenage self! I spent many of my angsty, awkward teenage days holed up in my hot Orange County, CA room singing to myself and dreaming of getting the hell outta dodge. However, the racial stereotypes attributed to my Asian Americaness afforded me opportunities to live life in a way that was denied to this student. I went away for college. She didn’t get to live past high school. Number 77.
Her murder remains unsolved. Only 17 years old, she was one of 7 students killed in Oakland in 2009. All seven were students of color. Perhaps reading this, your heart thinks of your own teenage daughter or son, a niece, nephew, or neighbor. Perhaps you think of your own experiences as a teenager. Maybe during your youth you also felt alienated. Maybe you, too, sang alone in your room.*
Scratching the Surface
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified four general “risk factor” areas that contribute to youth violence: Individual Risk Factors; Family Risk Factors; Peer/Social Risk Factors; and Community Risk Factors. Listed under Community Risk Factors are “diminished economic opportunities” and “high concentrations of poor residents”: elements that hint at the broader structures of systemic oppression, such as the related systems of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. The legacies of these historic systems persist today and directly contribute to youth violence.
Youth of color are more likely to live in segregated, low-income neighborhoods dismissed as ghettos. The community risk factors of “diminished economic opportunities” and “high concentrations of poor residents” are ever present elements of their daily lives. That students of color are more likely to live in communities at high risk for youth violence is a result of a system that ties race with economic class and segregation. Systemic racism persists in American society and continues to limit the life chances of poor students of color. Studies released by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles in 2012 revealed that despite the landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education for school integration, American schools are still segregated along racial and economic lines.
A Deeper Understanding
Yet looking at segregation alone still presents only a narrow understanding of the causes of violence affecting youth of color. In fact, in “The Postcolonial Ghetto: Seeing Her Shape and His Hand,” Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego and former Oakland educator K. Wayne Yang (La Paperson) cautions that viewing segregation as a cause of inequality situates the problem in the ghetto and further stigmatizes it. “More fundamentally,” he notes, “this view assumes the zone ‘outside of the ghetto’ to be the place of universal rights.” The solution, then, cannot be to simply get rid of the ghetto (whether by redevelopment, gentrification or other means) because racial/economic segregation is not the core cause. Rather, Yang argues, it’s colonialism.
In discussing the closure of a school he once helped run in East Oakland, Yang uses the term “post+colonialism” to demonstrate that the colonial system of domination and oppression is not over. In fact, it is alive and well. According to Yang, the ghettos of Oakland are colonies. They are so because of their alienation from the other parts of the city, which cannot distinguish themselves without their ghetto counterparts. These colonies are “dislocated” territories with residents who have been involuntarily dislocated from mainstream society. The violence that youth of color, especially black and Latino youth, endure in these colonial neighborhoods are a product of both racial and economic displacement stemming from the ongoing process of American imperial domination.
More specifically, they are a product of the dislocating process of empire that continues to shape our alienation from each other, our inability to recognize our interconnectedness. Though global conquest requires our delusion of duality, it simultaneously necessitates interdependence. As discussed above, without the ghetto there would be no ‘normal’ and ‘safe’ neighborhoods in Oakland. Without low performing schools there would be no high achieving schools of status, which often pipeline into four year colleges.
California’s Master Plan for education accommodates the top 12.5% of graduating California in the University of California system and the top 33.3% in the California State University system. According to the plan, there is no room in these systems for those students left behind. With the understanding of the systemic oppression of imperial alienation, we can begin to see that “the dislocation of people into subordinate positions [i]s part of the modern school system, rather than an accident of discrimination.” We can also begin to see the inherent reality of our systemic and human interconnectedness. Even our systems of oppression are reliant upon interdependent relations to create privilege.
Collective Delusion: 1492
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. When I was a teacher, this was the predominant way in which we were encouraged to teach about the commencement of global conquest. It still is. What strikes me about this type of lesson is not just the sanitization of imperial domination and its requisite violence, but that it hints at a profound understanding of the truth, and a need to cover it up. Many undergraduate students I’ve met go through a period of educational culture shock when they’re first exposed to the brutality of Western imperialism through their college classes. They wonder why in their early years of schooling they were taught a dramatically different history, of peaceful interactions with Indians instead of genocide and slavery.
Indeed, our delusion to systems of oppression is a learned way of thinking, taught to us through many ‘benign’ lessons that illustrate seemingly benevolent relations. They distract us from understanding that individual lives are interconnected to broader (violent) systems and that individuals are connected to each other within these systems. In doing so, violence can be rendered an anomalous act, committed by one person against another, instead of being the effect of systemic oppression. When looking at our own communities, “the focus on ‘crime’ naturalizes violence to pathologized places, as something that ‘happens’ in the ghetto, rather then something that is ‘done’ to the people there…black on black violence is highlighted and institutional violence fades into the background.” In other words, we learn to believe that Number 77 was a victim of a crime committed by some other individual (who society assumes to be black) because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. We also learn that this doesn’t concern those of us living in the safe middle and upper class neighborhoods, and therefore, such violence is not of serious alarm.
* When I read about her feelings of isolation and of her singing in her bedroom, it brought my heart to a closer understanding of our systematic alienation from each other. It also demonstrated to me how, despite the widespread feelings of aloneness we all feel at different points in our lives, alienation—from the modes of production, from each other, from our hearts, from our environment—is a commonality that connects us to each other in our suffering and struggle. Though we try to delude ourselves by assuming an inherent duality from self and other, our interconnectedness remains a constant. Writing this now, I think of the times I’ve been privileged to hear this teaching in the sutras and I remember that they were delivered through song, sung collectively by sangha and lay practitioners. Maybe you’ve recited these sutras, too. Maybe those times we thought we were singing alone, we were actually singing together.
Funie Hsu is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Davis in the School of Education. She was a former public school teacher in Los Angeles.
About BPF’s The System Stinks
Buddhist social justice curriculum
To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.
This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.
Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.
If you like what you see, please comment and share to show the world another side of Buddhism!
We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.