Understanding the “Second Class Citizen” -Spencer Sidell

Understanding the Second Class Citizen

    The program that I attended — sponsored by the Illume Speaker Series— was the “We Want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability,” which was read and written by Cathy Cohen, PhD. Cathy Cohen teaches at the University of Chicago and participates as the co editor of the program “Anthology of Women Transforming Politics.” Dr. Cohen expressed in her presentation how she studies the youth of America and their political ideas. Dr. Cohen believes that the younger generations are critical members of our community that are silenced and ignored due to their age, and therefore have valuable information about today’s politics because they have a unique view about society. Dr. Cohen emphasizes how the youth of America are the future of America and that their education is extremely important as they grow up in an age of neoliberalism. Dr. Cohen also shares how the younger generation of African Americans experience a disproportionate amount of political vulnerability and alienation compared to the rest of society. This idea not only mimics the theme of history between African Americans and social injustice, but Dr. Cohen’s ideas also raise attention to the future of the African American community as well. Dr. Cohen has observed through her studies that Black communities believe that change can only occur through the increased political power of black people. Understanding the disproportion between the political value of African Americans and the political value of the rest of America will highlight and match the themes of systematic mistreatment of African Americans in our society. These ideas of revolutionary change are necessary in order to change the state of political vulnerability and alienation. This change is important because we cannot create a fair and equal democracy within the American government without equal treatment of all people. 

    One example that Dr. Cohen references within her presentation was the negative impact of Ronald Reagan denying the existence of racial discrimination against African Americans during his campaign. The idea of Ronald Reagan referencing discrimination as a “myth” only marked  the beginning of the “colorless” legislation that he passed. This idea of colorless legislation is a problem because it fails to acknowledge the past misfortunes and turmoil that African Americans went through. From Ronald Reagan’s idea of discrimination being a myth spawned the creation of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (White, 960). This act allowed the police and federal military forces to work with each other to find and apprehend people in possession of drugs. At the same time this legislation was put in place, the crack crisis in the African American community was in full effect. Under Reagan’s drug legislation, the inmate population grew “from 204,000 in 1976 to 400,000 in 1984 (White, 961).” This war on drugs mostly affected the African American community because the legislation targeted crack specifically. The punishment for the possession of crack was comparable to punishment of second degree murder (White, 962). African Americans not only received disproportionate mistreatment through the war on drugs campaign, but also in Ronald Reagan’s efforts to get rid of affirmative action in education and work; Reagan added Supreme Court Justices that eventually tried to test and get rid of affirmative action during his presidency. This among many other pieces of legislation was created or reconstructed under the Reagan administration and led to even more mistreatment of black minorities. 

    It’s important to realize how Ronald Reagan’s ideas about racial discrimination affected the wellbeing of the African American community. Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of racism and discrimination helped lead to the mass incarceration of black people in America. This highlights how important the influence of politics is on the general population. In textbooks and the average history class, Ronald Reagan was considered to be a good President. However African American history can prove otherwise. Due to Reagan’s disbelief about discrimination, African Americans suffered disproportionate negative effects in education, housing, and incarceration. Reagan made African Americans an easy target for the police to imprison due to the effects of systematic racism and the crack crisis. His views about discrimination made the African American population vulnerable and alienated politically. This is crucial because it led to mass incarceration, trouble finding housing, police brutality, and the unequal ability to attain an education for the average African American.

    Another example that Dr. Cohen brought up about black vulnerability was the need for systemic change in the American political system. Dr. Cohen conducted many surveys with the youth of the minority in order to better understand how the minority felt about politics. The average African American believed that revolution through non violent protesting was the best way to make their voice heard in society. This idea is effective as Martin Luther King Jr created a sense of Black justice through similar ideas. In Martin Luther King’s “Letter to Birmingham Jail” MLK criticizes America’s political ideas and highlights the “racist power structure” that is held within it (King, 1). The article describes that “King not only justifies non­violent protest as a mechanism of change, but holds it up as a liberating force that transmutes hatred into love (King, 1).” What this quote means is that instead of inspiring a nation through physical and aggressive ways, Martin Luther King Jr. uses non violent activism to move his audience in a non harmful way. This idea of nonviolent protest has been a large part of the civil rights movement and is still utilized today. More recently it can be seen in the BLM movement. While there still have been acts of aggression in protests towards racism and recognition of police brutality in America, King and Dr. Cohen explains that this is only an indication of failure at the federal level to combat racism. Dr. King explains the idea of tension in his letter and explains that if enough tension exists for too long that violent protesting will occur. 

    Dr. King inspired the social justice movement that is BLM today and Dr. Cohen praises it as a way to better influence young African Americans. Organizations like the Black Lives Matter movement are crucial in educating the younger generations of African Americans, as the BLM movement has documented and fought against discrimination for a long time. Organizations like this allow African Americans to establish an identity with something larger than themselves, while at the same time demonstrating resistance against political vulnerability and alienation. 

    Dr. Cohen’s presentation was really just another indication of the lack of African American trust in America. She demonstrated on multiple occasions how African Americans have been mistreated in legislation, like by Ronald Reagan and his war on drugs, as well as the lack of housing available for black people. Dr. Cohen further explains that the lack of trust in America is because of the long list of grievances that have taken place in the United States. Dr. Cohen speaks about how America is systematically racist and oftentimes over-policing in black neighborhoods results because of it. African Americans historically have been made second class citizens, meaning that they are not equal to the majority of Americans. This creates a lack of identity in the youth of black people according to Dr. Cohen, because they feel like they aren’t accepted in any place due to discriminations against race. Because of this disproportionate state of vulnerability between African Americans and the rest of America it’s important to realize how to prevent political vulnerability and discrimination among black people. It’s important to grant them their political rights in order to give them a sense of identity within each other and to be able to fight racism effectively. Dr. Cohen explains that African Americans can resist political vulnerability by supporting groups like the Dream Defenders and the BLM movement. Dr. Cohen elucidates that using non violent protesting can achieve the revolutionary ideas that the youth of black America desires.


King, Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham jail. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Illume/Knapp: We Want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of         Vulnerability – Cathy Cohen, PhD

White, Deborah Gray, et al. <i>Freedom on My Mind</i>. 3rd ed., BibliU version, Bedford/St.         Martin’s, 2020.


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