OnTuesday April 19th, 2022, my fellow students and I filled the Warren Auditorium at the University of San Diego. We gathered there that night to listen to Dr. Cathy J. Cohen, a distinguished author, social activist, feminist, and political science professor at the University of Chicago. She is widely known for her works regarding African American politics, intersectionality, and other respective social movements including some regarding the LGTBQ community. She is also the Knapp Chair of Liberal Arts at the university where she works at. The Knapp program was started in 1995 to bring students and faculty together as an opportunity to teach them about the challenges that specific groups of people experience in our society. Dr. Cohen had come to the University of San Diego to do her speech, “We want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability”. The speech sheds light on the African American experience growing up in a country that doesn’t want you to have a voice. She explained how young Black Americans, like myself, go through feelings of alienation, vulnerability, and second-class citizenship. She then goes on to give examples of what people have done to fight back against being systematically pushed down, while also asking what needs to be done to fix that narrative. Showing current and reliable surveys taken of young Blacks, ages 18-36 with the question of “What is the best way to make racial progress?” Where most people answered with things like protesting, revolting, and organizing justice groups. This is important because as young Black people it is good for us to understand and be educated on our situation, so that when we are going through certain things we know how to act and persevere through those hardships. It also gives a better understanding to those who may be a little more ignorant to what people of the African American community have to go through.
I personally thought that Dr. Cohen’s speech would be interesting and necessary to attend because, as a Black man in the United States, and more specifically, at the University of San Diego, I feel underrepresented. It’s difficult to find people who look like me that are at the top. Looking just at the school’s administration, it is all white people. So the topics of feelings like alienation and being second-class citizens really stood out to me as those are things I have been struggling with my whole life. Her knowledge on the African American struggle is a really good source of information for young adults like myself. Most people do not know the importance of learning more about themself and the Power that gives you, so in my eyes “We Want Revolution” looked like the perfect opportunity to find the words to behind my feelings. I have experienced living in majority Black areas while going to school in majority white areas. With this I have seen the racial gap first hand. Alienation is something that is prevalent for Blacks in white areas because you become an outcast, making it hard to find people who relate to you. Judging by every negative stereotype there is about Black people, and having to deal with microaggression after microaggression the daily annoyance is tough. It reminds me of “September 1957, when the federal district court ordered the whites-only Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to admit nine black students — six girls and three boys — the new enrollees confronted screaming, cursing, and threatening white men, women, and children. Governor Orval Faubus also attempted to block the students, ordering the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school. When fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford arrived at Central High on September 4, she was met by angry crowds shouting, “Lynch her! Lynch her! … Let’s take care of that nigger.” When she tried to follow white students into the school, guards raised their bayonets to block her” (White et al. 897). It is a blatant example of the struggles Black people go through in this nation with trying to get basic things like education. Something that should be available to every human no matter their race, gender, or age. Now you can not tell me those kids did not feel alienated. They were scrutinized by their peers, humiliated and stripped of all their inner power. Things like this make young Black people feel like we have no power to make change in our situations, let alone in politics. Dr. Cohen also tied this into her speech. Describing how this affects the African American political presence and why Black people vote at such lower rates.
It is hard for people who feel like they do not have power to make drastic changes in their life. If all you have ever seen is people like you under servitude and impoverished, it becomes impossible to imagine yourself differently. On the topic of Blacks embracing their political right, Cohen explained that the “black political sphere that center the role of racial capitalism as specifically a racialized neo-liberalism as explicitly and implicitly contributing to and setting the table for repeat attacks on black humanity” (Cohen 15:25). Which has caused Generational Trauma over the years, something that was also brought up in “We Want Revolution”. That the past and present have and still affect Black people. From slavery, mass incarceration, to endless wars like the gun epidemic and gun violence in inner city areas. Black people always get the short stick. Now this trauma isn’t only affecting Black people directly, but the people around them as well. Whites in this country have always viewed African Americans as second-class citizens, Jim Crow laws are a perfect example of this. “Such laws and practices were embedded in a political and social culture built on views of racial hierarchy that were promoted as scientific and used to justify white dominance over peoples of color” (White et al. 598). They have a system in place that directly puts Black people at a disadvantage in everything they do. It is what has kept them at the top for so long, they are able to control the power with a watchful from their lavish hilly estates. This connects to me personally because growing I always saw the difference in how my community looked compared to somewhere predominantly white. Being from Oakland, California, a very Black city, it was easy to see that all of us lived in projects or run down housing within the city while the white people lived on the other side of the freeway, in the hills. From a young age it made me feel as though I was less than them because they were constantly looking down on me.
A way we can learn to break through these racial societal and political barriers is to understand and accept vulnerability. As explained in Dr. Cohen’s speech, “Being vulnerable means being capable of being wounded… “Political communities must come to terms with and respond appropriately to the vulnerabilities that exist within…[and that] vulnerability is a necessary component of living a rich and authentic human life in community” (Cohen 23:46). With this I think she was trying to say that being vulnerable is not something that is bad, but instead something that has value. Black people will have to get comfortable with this as a whole, by putting ourselves at the forefront of our wants and needs without worry of what the outcome may be. To spark new imaginative ways of “demanding answers to the current failures of policing, criminal justice, racial capitalism and the continuing existence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness” (Cohen 25:31). With this acceptance of vulnerability we will see a rise in Black peoples political presence, and hopefully positive progress towards our current overall predicament.
In conclusion, we have to remember the importance of understanding what societal boundaries are put in front of us as well as making sure we are educating ourselves on how to properly maneuver through those situations to better them in our favor. Going to speeches like Dr. Cathy Cohens “We Want Revolution” is a good start. Some may feel uncomfortable but to understand true vulnerability is to step out of one’s comfort zone. That is the true key to progress.
Cohen, Cathay J. We want Revolution: African American Young Adults and the Politics of Vulnerability. 19 April, 2022. Warran Auditorium, University of San Diego, CA.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2021. https://bibliu.com/app/#/view/books/9781319265670/epub/OEBPS/xhtml/whi_9781319210151_FM_title.html#page_4. Accessed on 10 May, 2022.