Daily Archives: May 16, 2022

“Understanding vulnerability as the basis for the political philosophy of the Black Youth” – Justin de Sousa

An American psychologist in the 1940s named Abraham Maslow presented his theory on what motivates people’s behavior. He believed that the desire to fulfill a hierarchy of different needs was at the core of all human motivation. At the base of the hierarchy is basic needs like food, water, and safety and at the top was self-actualization, essentially fulfilling one’s own potential. According to Maslow, before anyone’s motivations could move along the hierarchy their needs at the level below need to be satisfied. During her talk “We Want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability,” Cathy Cohen explains how she believes that “alienated vulnerability” is a driving force for the change black youth in America are working to implement and what she believes is the answer to what ultimately shapes many of their political beliefs. She defined this vulnerability as “feelings of harm or anger because you have no belief that the institutions and systems will protect you and if fact may even be harming you.” After almost 250 years black people in America have not had the basic human need of safety met because they still feel vulnerable to the very institutions which are supposed to protect them. Black youth today feel vulnerable because they are aware of how the political systems and institutions have been influenced by a “whitelash” to black success and racial capitalism and are constantly reminded of how those systems are failing them due to a perpetual racial crisis.

In order to understand how the history of black people’s status in this country is impacting today and the future, it is important to gain a sense of what black youth feel. This is the primary goal of Cathy Cohen and her work on the Gen Forward Survey. Cathy Cohen is a professor at the University of Chicago. She has devoted her life to the study of race and politics and received many awards for her work such as the Robert Wood Johnson Investigators award and two major grants from the Ford Foundation (blackyouthproject.com). She has also published two books one of which was specifically focused on black youth’s political ideologies called Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. The Gen Forward survey is a study focused on discerning how the youth in America, specifically minorities, think about the world and within the context of this talk the political and economic state of America. It surveys over 3,000 adults ages 18-36 (genforwardsurvey.com). These millennials are forced to navigate a system that has seen many new policies and systems which were created in response to the recent increase in opportunity gained by blacks and other minorities during the civil rights movement. This type of creation of discriminatory policy is a phenomenon called whitelash.

Whitelash occurs when policies made to inhibit and oppress black people are implemented following the expansion of their rights or opportunities. This response by whites to any progress made by black people can be seen many times throughout American history. One of the most egregious examples of this would be the reconstruction era of the south following the civil war. After the civil war, there was a brief stretch of time where black people made progress in their fight for equal rights known as Black Reconstruction. Before the civil war and the 13th amendment, the overwhelming majority of blacks were completely barred from access to any of the institutions of the white society. This meant that many different forms of infrastructure which already existed for whites needed to be organized and built for all the newly freed slaves. For example, most black people in the south had no access to formal education and were not literate. Through the efforts of newly freedpeople, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the AMA as well as black government officials, schools for black people were formed throughout the country. Black literacy declined from 90% to 70% in about 20 years (White, Bay, and Martin Ch9). Black people also began to make progress and change through political avenues. Republicans from congress forced former confederate states to host real democratic elections as well as change their state’s constitutions to allow black people to vote. This led to a number of black people gaining elected positions in local governments. This period of progress was eventually cut short after the south experienced a whitelash. Whites in the south, especially those who supported the confederacy, did not support the rise of newly freed black people and despised the idea of them being in politics. They started to organize into groups, most famously the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), who would attempt to intimidate and attack both black and white political officials who worked for progressive reform, and by the mid-1870s black people lost the majority of their representation in politic (White, Bay, and Martin Ch9). Cohen believes that black youth today are experiencing and are aware of what she believes was another whitelash following the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

When someone is aware that there may be backlash or punishment for some of their actions, especially when it is unjustified and they are powerless to stop it, it is very difficult to rationalize going through with said action. The young blacks in America are gaining awareness of these unjustified whitelashes and understand that some of the most significant policies affecting their communities today are the product of a whitelash to the civil rights movement. It is no mystery why they would feel alienated and vulnerable from our current institutions. These completely reasonable feelings make it hard for them to believe trying to make change through the traditional political channels of the system is a goal worth pursuing because they have seen so many generations attempt to do the same thing only to get burned. According to her work with the Gen Forward Survey, Cohen has found that when asked what they believe is the best way to make racial progress in America, none of the top three responses by young black people were through typical political and democratic channels. Their increased awareness of black history and white retaliation to political reform has made them lose faith in the system. This feeling of alienated vulnerability has only been exacerbated by the economic pressure many minority millennials are facing due to an economic and political philosophy Cohen calls “racialized neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism according to William Davies, a sociology professor at the University of London, is a belief that favors free-market capitalism and a deregulation/reduction of government spending (Davis 2014). The way this ideology has manifested in America according to Cohen is the “prioritizing of markets with a commitment to dismantling social welfare from the federal government. This racialized neoliberalism became prevalent following the expansionist era of social welfare during the civil rights movement and is one of the byproducts of a whitelash. Supporters of these policies would use rhetoric that vilified people who received state support. This could be seen during the Regan administration in the 1980s when he spread the idea of a “welfare queen.” This was a harmful characterization of black women who received social welfare. He portrayed them as oversexualized and irresponsible people who were living comfortably off the backs of taxpayers and their hard-earned money. This was of course a gross mischaracterization. He used this rhetoric to justify and garner support for cutting back on many social welfare programs which were providing aid to all races. Millennials and Gen Z are now forced to bear a lot of the economic fallout from events completely out of their control like the pandemic and the housing crash in 2007 but they lack the support these programs provided to the generations before. In addition to the political and economic vulnerability, this generation is constantly reminded of just how physically vulnerable they are because of the perpetual race crisis.

Due to the advancement of technology over the last 30 years, information and media coverage of current events is more accessible and widespread than ever before. This includes the constant media coverage of the many examples of traumatic events related to racial inequality. This is what Cohen refers to as the “perpetual racial crisis.” The most obvious example of this is the constant exposure to examples of police brutality directed at black people such as George Floyd. To clarify, this is not to say the widespread awareness that these events are taking place and that changes need to be made is a bad thing, just that they are a large reason why black youth today feel vulnerable to the current system. How are black youth expected to feel safe when they are constantly reminded that the people our government put in charge of their safety can and will abuse them? This issue of police brutality was largely brought on by another policy during the Regan administration, the “War on Drugs.” This led to policies that increased minimum sentencing for first-time offenders and created an incentive for increased police presence and surveillance in black communities (White, Bay, and Martin Ch 16). These sentences also disproportionately punished black people as the sentences for small portions of crack, a drug predominantly used by blacks and Hispanics, was the same as pounds worth of cocaine, a more expensive drug used predominantly by whites. This racially motivated policy led to a huge increase in the number of incarcerated blacks and Hispanics which bolstered the prison industrial complex. Cohen pointed out how hypocritical it is for neoliberalists to be providing so much support to a private industry like the prison system. This constant exposure to systemic injustice adds to these feelings of vulnerability by Black youth and has propelled them to work on forcing reform related to the issues.

The feeling that as a collective they are politically, economically, and physically vulnerable to the system and institutions which are supposed to protect them has influenced the young black adults’ vision for their future. The acknowledgment of these feelings and an understanding of how they manifested is the only way that America as a whole can hope to move forward toward a future where everyone is treated like a full citizen. Millennials and Gen Z can be the generation to achieve this change but it has to start with an understanding of how we got here. African American history is an essential component of that understanding because without it there is no way someone can comprehend just how vulnerable black people are in this country and why they feel revolution may be the only way to fix it.





Cohen, Cathy J. “We Want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability.” Illume/Knapp. 2022, San Diego , California .

“About Cathy J. Cohen.” The Black Youth Project, 3 Sept. 2017, http://blackyouthproject.com/about-us/cathy-j-cohen/.

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.

“About Genforward.” GenForward Survey, https://genforwardsurvey.com/about/.

Davies, William. “Neoliberalism: A Bibliographic Review.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 31,  no. 7–8, Dec. 2014, pp. 309–317, doi:10.1177/0263276414546383.

Politics of Vulnerability and What That Means for the African-American Community — T.J. Berger


On April 25th, 2022, Cathy J. Cohen, PhD presented her unfinished project titled We Want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability at Mother Rosalie Hall at the University of San Diego. Cohen is a well-respected political scientist, social activist, and award winning author for her books The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, and Democracy Remixed Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. She has also written her fair share of articles and op-eds which have been featured on journals like the American Political Science Review, Perspectives on Politics, Social Text, Dubois Review, and GLQ. Her article titled Bow Daggers and Welfare Queens The Radical Potential of Queer is the most cited article to ever be on GLQ. The main focus of the majority of Cohen’s work has been to look at the relationship between the African American community and politics. 

Her presentation on the 25th addressed the politics of vulnerability amongst African American young adults. She took a deep dive into the politics of vulnerability for young adults of plenty of different ethnic backgrounds and races, and the implications of that on African American young adults as well. She also had a focus on revolution policing throughout her presentation, but made it clear that her main focus was going to be on the politics of vulnerability. Cohen mentioned early on that she isn’t entirely sure where she wants to take the “anchoring framework” of this project, but knows that it is a book project she is only just beginning. In order to properly understand the work she’s been doing, you need to have a decent grasp on what political vulnerability actually entails. 

The politics of vulnerability is a relatively recent term that Dr. Cohen never explicitly defines in her presentation. But, through her presentation of facts, evidence, numbers, and ideas, she portrays what political vulnerability is. Political vulnerability, put quite simply, is just that. It is how vulnerable you are in a political sense. One quote from Cohen’s presentation that helped me get a good grasp on what she meant was when she mentioned why Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. “…with FiveThirtyEight arguing that Trump won in 2016 because he was able to tap into the economic fear, anger, and vulnerability of the White working class.” Political vulnerability can often be blown out of proportion internally, whereas you believe yourself to be more vulnerable than you actually are in reality. At the same time, it can be underestimated and in that case you become very easily taken advantage of by powerful political and governmental parties. Cohen notes here that FiveThirtyEight found data that suggested a major reason why Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, was because he exploited the fact that the White working class perceived themselves to be in a state of political vulnerability. They believed that after Obama’s presidency, the tide would shift in America, and they would no longer have the same advantages and systemic privileges that they’ve had since the founding of America. When comparing the many points that Cohen raises in her presentation to the overall history of America and African-Americans politically, it becomes apparent that political vulnerability has been a driving force for the majority of governmental actions taken that had to do with African-Americans, and that is what makes this program so significant.

Let’s take a look at the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which was covered in chapter 16 of Freedom on My Mind, beginning with his election in 1980. One could argue that Reagan’s entire presidency was based on the politics of vulnerability. One of the very first acts that Reagan took once he was elected into office was to essentially make life harder for the poor, because he believed that providing them with welfare was making them “dependent and lazy,” (White, 961). Reagan decided to cut job training programs as well as child nutrition programs. He also cut the program put in by Jimmy Carter titled the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) which had provided over 300,000 jobs for impoverished Americans in the time that Carter was president. More than 300,000 welfare recipients either had their welfare portions greatly reduced, or were permanently taken off welfare altogether. Reagan also went so far as to place people on the Civil Rights Commission (CRC) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who were against civil rights, which is naturally contradictory. 

All of these acts from Reagan came before 1982, when he officially declared the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs was Reagan taking Nixon’s “War on Crime” and officially shifting it to the War on Drugs. For the War on Drugs, Reagan surprisingly received support from liberal Democratic Congress members to pass laws that made drug use punishable by prison time for first-time offenders, which disproportionately affected African-Americans. In 1984, Reagan passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which essentially allowed for and encouraged military involvement in the War on Drugs. This meant the navy, coast guard, air force, and army would now all be using the resources to help apprehend first-time offenders that violated the new drug laws.

These actions all sound quite ridiculous in hindsight. And to make sense of them, you can see that all of the aforementioned political actions were due to perceived political vulnerability. When Reagan took office, he was the first Republican candidate elected since Nixon, as there was a four-year hiatus when Jimmy Carter held the presidency. Thus, the Republicans (particularly conservatives) felt that they were politically vulnerable. They felt that they needed to establish their political power and eliminate their vulnerability as much as possible. Reagan felt the same way, and this is why he started off by reversing the work done by his democratic predecessor. Cutting welfare, nutrition programs, job programs, etc had less to do with making people less “dependent and lazy” and more to do with assuming control and power. When the Democrats backed the new laws that would crack down on first-time offenders to drug laws, they were doing so in order for themselves to be less politically vulnerable. Democrats at the time were worried that they came off as being “soft on crime,” and therefore they wanted to eliminate that political vulnerability as much as possible. In doing so, they supported something that went against the basic Democratic principles, and jeopardized the lives of Black people around the country in doing so. 

In an article written by Hyon Joo Yoo titled Political Vulnerability and Alliance Restraint in Foreign Policy: South Korea’s Territorial Issue, Yoo writes about the prevalence of political vulnerability in foreign affairs. Yoo informs his readers that in South Korea, their democratically elected leaders often make large scale decisions based on their political vulnerability. Yoo argues that “top decision makers’ political vulnerability in domestic politics and the restraining pressure from the United States have impact on the final choice of foreign policy.” It’s fascinating to see how the basis of Dr. Cohen’s program has become applicable to political situations globally, and not just within America and referring to the treatment of African-Americans. Yoo’s article was written in 2021, and is about recent governmental decisions in South Korea. But the ideas that Cohen put forth in her program still ring true as to why people in political power make the decisions that they do.

Dr. Cathy Cohen, PhD presented evidence that suggested that African-Americans have been the victims of political vulnerability in recent years, dating back to the Obama presidency. But after analyzing her work and relating it back to what we learned throughout the semester, you can find that political vulnerability has been the driving factor for all things involving the American government’s poor treatment of Black people. Reagan’s presidency is just one example. But the way to know that this idea of political vulnerability indeed rings true, is by seeing how it affects other countries around the world, and that was evidenced in Yoo’s article. Political vulnerability is a decently young term, but it can be dated back to the beginning of American politics. And in order for America to take steps forward in their treatment of Black people, the government must understand that political vulnerability can no longer be a driving force in grand decision making.


Work Cited

Yoo, Hyon Joo. “Political Vulnerability and Alliance Restraint in Foreign Policy: South Korea’s Territorial Issue.” Australian Journal of International Affairs, 2021, pp. 1–21., https://doi.org/10.1080/10357718.2021.2016608. 

Cohen, Cathy, “We Want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability.” Mother Rosalie Hill Hall, University of San Diego, San Diego, California.

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.