A System of War Against Youth

— Henry A. Giroux

"It’s almost ten years after the wilding in Central Park, and what people had stigmatized as a black criminal mentality they now have to look at in Colorado and Arkansas. When white youths display the rage of what they’d panned off as black pathology, they now have to look at it as an American pathology<197>as a country diseased at its core when children step out to kill. They’re literally using their lives as revenge against the culture. And I don’t think that we can ignore that and keep saying it’s an individual pathology or it’s because of the family. The country creates the family. People, for the most part, don’t create their own values; the culture gives values – that’s the purpose of culture." —Sapphire(1)

WITHIN THE LAST decade, youth have become public enemy number one – blamed for nearly all of our major social ills extending from violence and drug use to the breakdown of family values.

On the cultural front, the media constantly depict youth, especially youth of color, as more troubling than troubled. Hollywood films such as "The Substitute," "Dangerous Minds" a are premised on the assumption that brown, black and poor kids are not only outside of the purview of respect and decency, but also pose a threat to society because they embody rampant criminality, sexual degeneracy, and excessive drug abuse.

In these films, youth are both demonized and marked as disposable, literally murdered as part of a "cleaning up" operation to make the public schools and urban streets safe for a largely white, middle-class adult population whose well-being and security are allegedly under siege.

Rather than being at risk in a society marked by deep economic and social inequalities, youth have become the risk. Such representations signal a growing shift in the public’s perception of young people. No longer simply a symptom of systemic economic, social, and political inequalities, youth have become a social menace – a root cause of all that is wrong with American society.(2)

This perception of youth as ultraviolent, predatory and morally depraved serves to largely eradicate any notion of adult responsibility for youth, offering few possibilities for analyzing how teens view themselves and their own sense of agency, experience their relations with others within diverse social spheres, and mediate power relations with adults. As corporate culture gains ascendency in all facets of American life, such representations of youth become more credible and less problematic as the rhetoric of cynicism, disdain and containment are divorced from broader considerations of social responsibility.

Compassion for troubled youth has given way to "zero tolerance" policies that often translate into an easy excuse to punish kids rather than attempt to work with them and make an investment in their psychological, economic and social well being. A growing number of cities are passing sweep laws – curfews and bans against loitering and cruising – designed not only to keep youth off the streets, but to make it easier to criminalize their behavior as part of a broader effort to shift responsibility to the police and the courts for dealing with youth.

One consequence has been that curfew arrests nationwide have doubled between 1988 and 1997, and the brunt of such policies have fallen on youth of color. For instance, "According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Ventura County, CA, arrests Latino and black youths at over seven times the rate of whites. In New Orleans, blacks are arrested at 19 times the rate of whites."(3)

In spite of the fact that national homicide rates have dropped over forty percent in the last seven years, youth of color are being incarcerated at record levels as indicated by the fact that while "whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. In California, 86 percent of wards in the California Youth Authority are of color."(4)

Similarly, in many states, legislation is being passed to allow the courts to try juveniles as adults – in some cases as young as eleven. All fifty states have passed laws that allow juveniles to be tried as adults, and forty-three states have laws on the books making it easier to transfer children charged with crimes to adult courts. One recent study, "Color of Justice," confirms that such get-tough laws are not only draconian, but disproportionately punish disenfranchised minority youth.(5)

The statistics are disturbing: "Minority youths are more than twice as likely as their white counter-parts to be transferred out of California’s juvenile justice system and tried as adults ... . [Moreover], once transferred to the adult system, young African-American offenders were 18.4 times more likely to be jailed than were young white offenders."(6)

Dan Macallair, co-author of the study, claims that "California has a double standard: throw kids of color behind bars, but rehabilitate white kids who commit comparable crimes."(7) It gets worse. Cities such as Los Angeles are developing data bases to identify young "suspects" before they commit an actual crime. Ryan Pintado-Vitner and Jeff Chang are right in arguing that "youth of color have been turned into a generation of suspects."(8)

All of this echoes a recent report by the Public Agenda policy group which found that "58 percent of those surveyed think children and teens will make the world a worse place or no different when they grow up."(9) More than three-quarters of the adults who responded to this survey used derogatory labels and negative terms in referring to teens as "rude," "irresponsible" or "wild."(10)

There is a tragic and cruel irony in the fact that in many states kids need their parents’ permission to get a tattoo, buy cigarettes or get their ears pierced, while the same states see no contradiction in trying them as adults. It must seem strange to young people to live in a society that prevents them from getting their ears pierced without adult permission but has no qualms about placing them in jails with adults, subjecting them to rape, assault, and a range of other dehumanizing indignities.

Zero tolerance as both an ideology of disdain and a policy of containment increasingly reaches across a variety of public spheres that bear down on teens, extending from the criminal justice system to the public schools. Questions of school safety now become more important than issues of academic quality, even though by all accounts the public schools are just about the safest places available for children.

Unfortunately, any sense of perspective appears to be lost, as school systems across the country clamor for metal detectors, armed guards, see-through knapsacks, and in some cases armed teachers. As Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman points out, zero tolerance has become a code word for a "quick and dirty way of kicking kids out" of school.(11)

As compassion and understanding give way to rigidity and intolerance, more and more kids are being either suspended or expelled from the public schools. And the racial consequences of such policies are glaring. For example, in a recent study of twelve large public schools districts, Black youth were "suspended or expelled at a higher rate than their white peers."(12)

But zero tolerance policies do more than turn schools into an adjunct of the criminal justice system, they also further rationalize misplaced legislative prioriies that have a profound social cost. For instance, many states now spend "more on prison than on university construction. Operating prisons in the year 2000 will cost about $40 billion."(13)

Young people are quickly realizing that schools have more in common with boot camps and prisons than they do with other institutions in American society. The hidden curriculum here is that learning is about conformity and adaptation, and that resistance means punishment and containment.

Demonized by the media, turned into a generation of suspects by the criminal justice system, and warehoused in economically depressed and overcrowded public schools, young people often find themselves inhabiting a social landscape in which public space is replaced by commodified spaces.

As social space disappears and the welfare-state is dismantled, teens find themselves without the benefit of youth programs, recreational facilities, health care and basic support services. Non-commodified spheres are replaced by privatized play areas, militarized urban spaces, proliferating malls and fast food restaurants, and an economic landscape offering low skill, low wage jobs.

The adult world provides few markers for negotiating this terrain. Unfortunately, educators have ever-shrinking access to public forums to address the ongoing attacks on youth, in part because the dominant discourses of neo-liberalism and evangelical conservatism privilege the market-driven language of entrepreneurship and a ruthless bootstrap morality over the language of social responsibility, equity, justice and democracy.

Crisis of American Schooling

The attack on the rights of children is nowhere more evident than in the increasingly powerful attempts to decimate the public school system as part of a broader assault on the welfare state and the democratic foundations of political, social and cultural life.

American youth and public schooling have not fared well during the political culture of the 1980s and 1990s. By calling into question the relationship between schooling and equity, many politicians and academics have redefined the role of education in terms that accentuate the language of privatization and standardization.

Removed from the skills and knowledge of public service, many educational spokespersons have attempted to redefine the public school as an adjunct of the corporation, offering its services to the highest corporate bidder. In stark contrast to established educational philosophies ranging from John Dewey to W.E.B. Du Bois to Paulo Freire, schooling has become a private enterprise rather than a public good, a new market for investment opportunities that benefits the individual consumer rather than all members of society.

Growing up corporate has become a way of life for American youth. As commercial culture replaces public culture, the language of the market increasingly becomes a substitute for the language of democracy. The cost of this shift is high and can be seen in the power of an ever-expanding growing commercial culture to undermine the democratic foundation of civil society, particularly as the function of schooling shifts from being seen as a universal right to a privatized interest in which training increasingly replaces any vestige of critical education.

Consumerism now appears to be the only kind of citizenship being offered to children and adults. Within this discourse, schooling offers no language for educating young people to defend vital public institutions, define citizenship as a social rather than privatized affair, and link learning to democratic social change.

Strapped for money, many public schools have had to lease out space in their hallways, buses, restrooms and school cafeterias, transforming such spaces into glittering billboards for a variety of business interests. Invaded by candy manufactures, breakfast cereal makers, sneaker companies, and fast food chains, schools increasingly offer the not-so-subtle message to students that everything is for sale – including student identities, desires and values.

Seduced by the lure of free equipment and money, schools all too readily make the transition from allowing advertising to providing commercial merchandise in the form of curricular materials designed to build brand loyalty among members of the captive public school audience. In this context, administrators and classroom teachers experience the humiliations of restructuring and the loss of autonomy as their roles shift from the de<->mands of enlightened leadership to the pragmatics of the sales pitch, from the challenge of critical teaching to the spectacle of aping the hard sell.

While the corporate model of educational reform wraps itself in the democratic principles of freedom, individualism and consumer rights, it fails to provide the broader historical, social and political contexts necessary to render such principles meaningful and applicable, particularly with respect to the problems facing public schools. For instance, advocates of privatization and choice have little to say about the relationship between choice and the systemic relations of economic inequality; nor do they provide any context to explain public school failure in recent decades – ignoring factors such as joblessness, poverty, racism, crumbling school structures and unequal school funding.

Largely indifferent to the financial inequities that haunt public schools, the ideas and images that permeate this corporate model of schooling reek with the rhetoric of insincerity and the ruthless politics of social indifference.(14)

Toward a Radical Educational Practice

In opposition to the corporatizing of public schools, progressive educators need to define public and higher education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of the nation. At the heart of such a task is the need for academics, cultural workers and labor organizers to join together and oppose the transformation of the public schools and higher education into commercial spheres, to resist what Bill Readings has called a consumer-oriented corporation more concerned about accounting than accountability.(15) Schools need to provide students with possibilities for linking knowledge, social responsibility, and collective agency.

In addition to redefining the purpose and meaning of schooling as part of a broader attempt to struggle for a radical democratic social order, progressive educators need to reassess what it means to define the conditions under which they work in ways that provide them with a sense of dignity and power. Defending public and higher education as vital sphere is crucial to develop and nourish the proper balance between democratic public spheres and commercial power, between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, self-interested individualism that celebrate selfishness, profit-making and greed.

Progressives also need to reconsider the critical role educators might take up within public and higher education. This suggests that progressive educators strongly oppose those approaches to forms of schooling that corporatize and bureaucratize the teaching process, processes that deskill as they disempower. A radical pedagogy should, in part, be premised on the assumption that educators vigorously resist any attempt on the part of liberals and conservatives to reduce them to either the role of technicians or multinational operatives.

Instead, progressive educators need to define their roles as engaged public intellectuals capable of teaching students the language of critique and possibility as a precondition for discovering their ability to become social agents. Such a redefinition of purpose, meaning and politics suggests that educators critically interrogate the fundamental link between knowledge and power, pedagogical practices and social consequences, and authority and civic responsibility.

The question of what educators teach is inseparable from what it means to invest in public life and to locate oneself in a public discourse. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that the responsibility of educators cannot be separated from the consequences of the knowledge they produce, the social relations they legitimate, and the ideologies they disseminate to students.

Educational work at its best represents a response to questions and issues posed by the tensions and contradictions of public life; such work, when critical, attempts to understand and intervene in specific problems that emanate from the material contexts of everyday existence. Teaching in this sense becomes performative and highlights considerations of power, politics and ethics fundamental to any form of teacher-student interaction.

A radical pedagogy points to the connections between conception and practice, and it honors students’ experiences by connecting learning to their everyday lives. Within such an approach, theoretical rigor is connected to social relevance, knowledge is subjected to critical scrutiny and engagement, and pedagogy is seen as crucial to the production of both individual and social agency.

Struggles over pedagogy must also be seen as part of a broader struggle over institutional and material relations of power, and it is only by linking the institutional conditions for the organization of schooling to the production of critical pedagogical practices that teaching and learning can take place as a concrete affirmation of dignity, meaning and empowerment.

This suggests that struggles over pedagogy must be accompanied by sustained attempts on the part of progressive educators to collectively organize and oppose current efforts to disempower teachers through the proliferation of standardized testing schemes, management by objectives designs, and bureaucratic forms of accountability.

This requires that radical educators and other progressives organize against the corporate takeover of schools, fight to protect the power of unions, expand the rights and benefits of staff personnel, and put more power into the hands of faculty and students. Accordingly, progressive educators and social activists should reject forms of schooling that marginalize students who are poor, Black, and least advantaged.

This suggests developing school practices that recognize how issues related to gender, class, race and sexual orientation can be used as a resource for learning rather than being contained in schools through a systemic pattern of exclusion, punishment and failure. Similarly, if curricular justice implies that school knowledge be organized around the needs of the least advantaged then school and classroom authority should rest in the hands of teachers and communities and not be under the control of "experts," imported from the business community or the world of for-profit schools.

In addition, assessments in schools should draw upon multiple sources, be attentive to the cultural resources of the communities in which students live their daily lives, and recognize that any viable approach to assessment is as much about the discourse of equitable and fair distribution of resources as it is about issues of testing and accountability.

In this perspective, the conditions for teaching and learning cannot be separated from the how and what students learn. Public schools don’t need standardized curricular and testing. On the contrary, they need curricular justice – forms of teaching that are inclusive, caring, respectful, economically equitable, and whose aim, in part, is to undermine those repressive modes of education that produce social hierarchies and legitimize inequality, while simultaneously providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to become well-rounded critical actors and social agents.

At the level of higher education, it is crucial for progressive educators to not only wage battles over access for poor and minority students, shift power away from bureaucracies to faculty, and also address the exploitative conditions under which many graduate students work – often constituting a de facto army of service workers who are underpaid, overworked, and shorn of any real power or benefits.(16)

Simply put, the what, how and why of teaching cannot be separated from the basic conditions under which educators and students labor. This means rethinking how teaching functions as a form of academic labor within iniquitous relations of power and how schooling can be addressed as a crucial site of struggle.(17)

As long as teachers and students increasingly bear the burden of overcrowded classes, limited resources, and hostile legislators, progressive educators and students need to join with labor organizations, community people and others in forming social movements that resist the corporatizing of schools, the rollback in basic services, and the exploitation of teachers and students.

At the very least, radical pedagogical work proposes that education is a form of political intervention in the world and is capable of creating the possibilities for social transformation.(18) Rather than viewing teaching as technical practice, radical pedagogy in the broadest terms is a moral and political act premised on the assumption that learning is not about processing received knowledge, but about actually transforming it as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice.

This implies that any viable notion of pedagogy should illustrate how knowledge, values, desire and social relations are always implicated in relations of power, and how such an understanding can be used pedagogically and politically by students to further expand and deepen the imperatives of economic and political democracy.

The fundamental challenge facing progressive educators within the current age of neoliberalism is to provide the conditions for students to address how knowledge is related to the power of both self-definition and social agency. Central to such a challenge is providing students with the skills, knowledge, and authority they need to inquire and act upon what it means to live in a radical multicultural democracy, to recognize anti-democratic forms of power, and to fight deeply rooted injustices in a society and world founded on systemic economic, racial and gendered inequalities.

Addressing the problems youth currently face suggests that rigorous educational work needs to respond to the dilemmas of the outside world by focusing on how young people make sense of their experiences and possibilities for decision making within the structures of everyday life. The motivation for scholarly work cannot be narrowly academic (that is, knowledge which is reified because it is decontextualized and depoliticized by forcing it to remain within the domain of disciplinary based knowledge and texts). Such work must connect with "real life social and political issues in the wider society."(19)

This requires, in part, that progressive educators address the practical consequences of their work in the broader society while simultaneously making connections to those too often ignored institutional forms, social practices and cultural spheres that position and influence young people.

Moreover, it is crucial for critical educators to recognize that the forms of domination that bear down on young people are both institutional and cultural, and one cannot be separated from the other. Within this approach to cultural politics, the effects of domination cannot be removed from those wider pedagogical conditions and popular spheres in which such behavior is learned, appropriated or challenged.

As committed educators, progressives need to respect the lives of children by asking important questions such as what schools and other public spheres should accomplish in a democracy and why they fail, and how such a failure can be understood within a broader set of political, economic, spiritual, and cultural relations.

We should remind ourselves, in this time of rapacious capitalist mergers and downsizing, that market-driven knowledge should not be the only discourse that schools offer to young people, that citizenship is not an entirely privatized affair, and that capitalism and democracy are not the same thing.

Against dominant corporate ideology and relations of power, progressives must enter a wider public conversation around school policy and begin to argue forcefully in multiple cultural spheres that schools should function to serve the public good and not be seen merely as a source of private advantage, removed from the dynamics of power and equity. At the same time, such arguments need to take place as part of a reconstituted defense of the welfare state and radical democracy.

Progressive educators need to reappropriate the belief that academic work matters in its relationship to wider public practices and policies. In part, this suggests they address the crisis of vision and power that currently characterizes all levels of schooling and culture in the United States. The crisis of vision registers the political, social and cultural demise of democratic relations and values in American institutions and culture while the crisis of power points to the necessity for educators and others to link educational work, both within and outside of schools, to "what it means to expand the scope of democracy and democratic institutions, [and to] address [how] the very conditions of democracy are being undermined."(20)

Such work holds the promise for understanding not just how power operates in particular contexts, but also how the knowledge and skills produced and learned within diverse locations "will better enable people to change the contexts and hence the relations of power"(21) that inform the inequalities that undermine any viable notion of democratic participation in a wide variety of cultural spheres, including public and higher education.

Learning takes place in a variety of public spheres outside of the schools, and while we need to defend public and higher education against the ravaging influence of corporate culture, which means defending it as a public asset rather than as a private investment, we must also connect what is taught in the larger culture to the problems of youth and the challenges of radical democracy in a newly constituted global public.

Progressive education in an age of rampant neo-liberalism requires an expanded notion of the public, pedagogy, solidarity, and democratic struggle. Crucial here is a conception of the political that is open yet committed, respects specificity and difference without erasing global considerations, and provides new spaces for collaborative work engaged in productive social change.

The time has come for progressive educators to develop a more systemic political project in which power, history and social movements can play an active role in constructing the multiple and shifting political relations and cultural practices necessary for connecting the construction of diverse political constituencies to the revitalization of democratic public life. At the beginning of the new millennium, educators, parents and others should reevaluate what it means for children to grow up in a world that has been radically altered by a hyper capitalism that monopolizes the educational force of culture as it ruthlessly eliminates those public spheres not governed by the logic of the market.

Such a task demands new theoretical and political tools for addressing how pedagogy, knowledge, and power can be analyzed within and across a variety of cultural spheres, including but not limited to the schools, especially as such spheres frame the intersection of language and bodies as they become "part of the process of forming and disrupting power relations."(22)

At the same time, progressive educators should work with parents, community organizers, labor organizations and other groups to better understand how public discourses about youth have become synonymous with the language of control, surveillance and demonization. Interrogating how power works through such discourses and social relations, particularly as they affect youth who are marginalized economically, racially and politically provides opportunities for progressives to challenge dominant ideologies and regressive social policies.

Those very policies undermine the possibilities for connecting the crisis of youth and the struggles over education to the broader crisis of radical democracy and social and economic justice. For many youth, the future appears to be a repeat of the present, a period not unlike what Gil-Scott Heron once called "winter in America." The time for radical change has never been so urgent since the fate of an entire generation of young people is at stake.


  1. Fran Gordon, "Breaking Karma: A Conversation with Sapphire," Poets and Writers (January-February 2000), 26-27.
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  2. For a perceptive analysis of the recent attacks on youth within the media and other public spheres, see Carol Tell, "Generation What?" Educational Leadership 57:4 (December 1999/January 2000), 8-13.
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  3. Ibid, 13.
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  4. Ibid, 11.
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  5. As I write this article, California is about to vote and pass Proposition 21, which shifts power away from judges to prosecutors in deciding whether juveniles fourteen years or older should be charged as adults. The law also calls for expanding penalties for youths fourteen and over who are convicted of felonies. Such youths would automatically be put in adult prison and given lengthy mandated sentences. The law would largely eliminate intervention programs, increase the number of youth in prisons, especially minority youth, and keep them there for longer periods of time. The law is at odds with a number of studies that indicate that putting youth in jail with adults both increases recidivism and poses a danger to young offenders who, as a recent Columbia University study suggested, are "five times as likely to commit suicide than adults in the adult prison system." Cited in Evelyn Nieves, "California Proposal Toughens Penalties for Young Criminals," New York Times, Monday, March 6, 2000: A1, A15.
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  6. All the above quotes can be found in Tamar Lewin, "Racial Discrepancy Found in Trying of Youths," New York Times, February 3, 2000: A14.
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  7. Ibid.
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  8. yan Pintado-Vertner and Jeff Chang, "The War on Youth," Colorlines (Winter 1999-2000), 12.
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  9. Public Agenda, Kids These Days 1999: What Americans Really Think About the Next Generation (New York: Public Agenda, 1999), 3.
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  10. Ibid, 11.
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  11. Ellen Goodman, "’Zero Tolerance’ Means Zero Chance for Troubled Kids," Centre Daily Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2000), 8.
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  12. Tamar Lewin, "Study Finds Racial Bias in Public Schools," New York Times, March 11, 2000: A14.
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  13. Cited in Anthony Lewis, "Punishing the Country," New York Times, Tuesday, December 21, 1999: A31.
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  14. A classic example of such mean-spirited indifference can be found in James Traub, "What No School Can Do," The New York Times Magazine (January 16, 2000), 52-57, 68, 81, 90-91. Traub argues that since schools alone cannot reverse poverty, there is no sense in providing them with more money. According to Traub, the best thing to do is for poor families to move out of the neighborhood. Traub appears totally indifferent to what it might mean on a daily level for students to be able to learn in smaller classrooms, have access to basic supplies, find themselves surrounded by computers, sit in classes with adequate heat in the winter, etc. Traub’s logic seems to be that if schools cannot fix every problem then why bother with them at all. This is simply a coded logic for dismissing students who are poor or minorities of color.
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  15. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), 11, 18.
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  16. See Cary Nelson, ed. Will Teach For Food: Academic Labor in Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
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  17. I have taken this up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, Impure Acts: The Practical Politics of Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 2000). See also Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
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  18. I discuss this in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture, and Schooling (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997).
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  19. Tony Bennett, "Cultural Studies: A Reluctant Discipline," Cultural Studies 12:4 (1998), 538.
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  20. Cornel West, "America’s Three-Fold Crisis," Tikkun 9:2 (1994), 41-42.
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  21. Lawrence Grossberg, "Cultural Studies: What’s in a Name?" in Bringing It All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 252-253.
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  22. Cindy Patton, "Performativity and Spatial Distinction," in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Andrew Parker, ed. Performativity and Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 183.
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ATC 86, May-June 2000