Dwindling Hope, Irrelevant Election: Young People Get Their Cynicism Back

New America Media, Published October 8, 2008 

Editor’s Note: Walking through the streets of New York City, NAM writer Russell Morse noticed that something had changed: Young people, who weeks ago seemed full of hope, seem to have recovered their cynicism in the face of a spiraling economic decline around them.

NEW YORK – Last night’s presidential debate, the second of three with less than a month to go before the election, was notable only for its shocking and sad irrelevance. After witnessing New York City’s wild spiraling decline in the past couple of weeks and registering the fear on the faces of my generation, I could not bring myself to listen to the middling and petty differences of these two men, who look more like mere politicians than ever before. To mix a metaphor, they seemed like silly, stubborn men fighting at the helm of the Titanic.

The signs of dwindling interest in the election and fading hope for the future among young people in New York City are everywhere. Since Barack Obama’s January victory in Iowa, I have witnessed soaring optimism and an unprecedented political engagement among previously dialed-out members of my generation. I have seen it in San Francisco, Rhode Island, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and the Twin Cities: a new political generation, hopeful, passionate and elated.

All of that seems very far away right now.

On a recent Saturday night, two young, professional black women boarded the A train at 42nd Street and stood next to me, chattering loudly. It was early in the evening, but they were coming from having a few drinks (one of them was holding an empty martini glass in her hand, an assumed souvenir). At first, I couldn’t tell what they were talking about, but it sounded like troubles in love. “I don’t know why we keep lying to ourselves, girl.” Her friend shook her head and clicked her teeth. Then she went on. “I mean, when was the last time somebody was elected president and did what they said they were gonna do?”

I was shocked. Young, black women, presumably among Obama’s safest bets and most enthusiastic supporters, are angry and doubtful. This was the first time I had heard talk like this about Obama between young people, regardless of race.

I switched trains at 14th Street to get on the L, headed to Brooklyn to meet some friends. I got off at Bedford, the cultural epicenter of skinny jeans, comical moustaches and boys in bands on bicycles. These are the young, white hipsters of America, once crippled by irony and apathy. This year, though, I have seen even the jaded, over-it cheap beer swillers buy into the hope that Obama offers.

The first person I saw when I got off the train was a young white guy wearing a T-shirt that read “Vote, Then Bum Out.” I was confused at first. Was this a T-shirt from four years ago, meaning, “Vote, even though Bush is going to win”? Or maybe “Vote, even though John Kerry sucks”? If that’s the case, why is he wearing that shirt now? It could mean “Vote, then bum out because John McCain is going to win.” I doubt that, though, as the political momentum has turned dramatically in favor of Obama. No, I assume it means, “Vote, and when Obama wins, don’t be surprised that it’s just gonna be more of the same and your optimism was wasted.”

I saw something else that night, much more dramatic, that shocked and confused me. At 4:00 in the morning on Sixth Avenue downtown, I stood on a corner to watch people stumble from bars to cabs and subways and falafel stands. Most of the crowd where I was standing was young and black, smoking cigarettes, talking loudly. Suddenly, a commotion: a cab stopped in front of us and both doors swung open, two young white kids – a boy and a girl –jumping out, running away and laughing. The cab driver, a rather large Haitian man, jumped out of the cab yelling and started to chase them. The partygoers had tried to get a free ride.

The Haitian cab driver caught up to them and dragged them back to his cab, demanding to be paid for the ride and threatening to call the police.

The crowd started to become more engaged, yelling at the culprits. “Pay that man his money!” The crowd of about 30 mostly black young people then surrounded the white kids, escorting them to a nearby ATM, demanding that they take money out and pay the cab driver, yelling the whole time. The scene was racially charged and had the potential to be tense or ugly: a crowd of black youths confronting two white party kids for robbing a black cab driver. It was clear that they saw themselves involved in a struggle for justice, but most of the people in the crowd were laughing and in good spirits.

The bizarre moment came when people started making more and more jokes about the incident as the young man swiped his ATM card to take out cash. People were talking and laughing, giggling at the comments and adding their own and at one point, somebody randomly started chanting, “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” People laughed and the chant continued until the young man paid the cab driver and everyone cheered, most of them also laughing.

For a moment, I saw it as a dramatic illustration in the continued struggle for justice in the history of black Americans. In my lifetime, I have seen this struggle symbolized by the plight of Rodney King and then the trial of O.J. Simpson. I saw the Obama chant as a continuation of that: black people seeking justice and attaching that fight to a new man, this time optimistically.

After some reflection, though, I didn’t think that’s why they were chanting.

The chant was a non-sequitor. This was a happy and jovial crowd, entertained by an incident with racial overtones. The chant was sarcastic, a joke. I think they were saying, in essence, “An Obama presidency will change as much for us as the small and trivial victory of these kids getting caught.”

My observations of that Saturday night reflect a dwindling hope in the campaign of Barack Obama, but there is also a growing irrelevance around the entire presidential campaign.

Monday night, I was walking to get dinner in my neighborhood when a young Dominican man approached me. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “I’m not asking for money. I need infant milk, formula, for my one-month-old-baby.” He was apologetic and offered to take me to his home to show me his baby. I said he didn’t have to do that and dug in my pocket to give him some money. He shook his head. He refused to accept money from me, insisting that I walk with him to the store and buy the formula with him so that I would know that’s really what he needed.

So I walked with him and tried to start a conversation. He just shook his head and apologized over and over. We bought the formula, left the store and I touched his shoulder, wishing him luck. He was a big guy, easily 6’4 and maybe 250 pounds. After thanking me, he said, “Trust me, I feel this big right now,” holding up his thumb and forefinger in a pinch to illustrate.

Whenever I meet young people, I ask them what they think about the election. I ask if they’re going to vote, who they like and why. I didn’t have the heart to ask this man. The question of the next president is so far removed from the immediate crisis of his life—feeding his one-month-old son—that I would have been embarrassed to bring it up.