What do Islamic terrorism, urban murders, and white nationalist violence have in common? Jamil Jivani is convinced that the disconnect young men feel from society at large is at the heart of them all. And our political and social inertia is only making them worse. His debut book, Why Young Men? Rage, Race, and the Crisis of Identity, is an examination of the cultural forces that make men feel socially isolated and the appeal of ideologies that draw them toward violence. His insights from different communities that he’s lived in and researched are incredibly useful, if a bit scattershot; but his most important contribution is his relentless focus on finding a way to impart meaning to, and cultivate relationships with, young men facing a host of negative cultural pressures.
The first third of the book is dedicated to Jivani’s own story. His father was a Muslim immigrant married to a white Canadian woman. He provided for the family’s economic needs but was rarely present emotionally. Jivani, though not growing up in poverty, nonetheless experienced racial discrimination and struggled in school. All of these experiences fostered a strong sense of disconnection from broader society, and he found himself attracted initially by what he calls the “gangster culture” promoted by rap artists. The draw of this imaginary lifestyle was incredibly appealing to someone who felt as though the world at large would not or could not accept him.
While many of his peers got sucked into a life of crime and drugs in pursuit of this dream, he eventually realized that he did not want (or would not be able) to wield a gun and sell drugs as he had fantasized doing. At the same time, he began to read a lot of Nation of Islam literature online, which met a similar need: “I was desperate for some direction in my life, for some sense of what kind of man I was supposed to be. . . . All the ideas I was drawn to were ones that held the promise of filling the voids in my life. These voids weren’t being filled in school, where I never once had the chance to talk about masculinity, aside from basic sex education in health class.”
Jivani returns to this theme of masculinity and disenfranchisement over and over again. Whether it is teenagers of colour in North America or young Muslim men in Belgium that he meets after the 2015 ISIS attack in Paris, they all feel like outsiders unable to really be a part of the society they live in. Their families are overwhelmed with getting by, and their interactions with the state via education or policing are either silent or hostile to their core identity, creating the voids that Jivani speaks of. This opens the door for menacing ideologies like the Nation of Islam, gangster culture, or ISIS (usually mediated through the internet) to impart meaning to these young men and encourage them to be violent. The identities they embrace through these ideologies feel more congruous with their life experience and are thus more fulfilling.
After spending many chapters describing his experiences as a black man in North America and just as much space in the book on his time embedded in a Muslim community centre in Belgium, Jivani spends just one chapter trying to tie in the rise of the alt-right to similar phenomena. Comparing ISIS members with the Charlottesville rioters is provocative, and certainly the argument is easy enough to make. Various alt-right mouthpieces complain about the damage that feminism has done to masculinity. But this chapter feels shallow compared to the detailed ethnographic analyses of previous chapters, which are replaced here, for example, by the reactions of his white relatives to things he posted on Facebook.
Jivani’s discussion of what sort of alternative ideals of masculinity young men need are similarly underdeveloped. When discussing white middle-class college students whining about cultural cuckoldry, he addresses feminist critiques of “toxic masculinity.” These critiques are more than fair, but he seems unsure about how they would engage with black teenagers who idolize drug dealers because their fathers are absent. While he seems to be seeking a narrative that describes all young men but particularly harms young men of colour, he never quite gets around to summarily arguing for such a central narrative—he merely notes that he has a much easier time getting a hearing when he is talking about black or Muslim men who feel disenfranchised.
He does, however, argue again and again for the importance of same-sex mentorship. He cites many examples of public or private programs that pair men (some of whom have spent time in prison themselves) with other men who are falling through the cracks in society being held open or driven wider by racism, failing education systems, and lackluster job markets. He has no love for the sort of masculinity that encourages violence as self-actualization and discourages the open sharing of one’s feelings. Yet the kinds of ideas Jivani—whose exit from the Nation of Islam came when he took a freshman-level class that articulated many of his same grievances with society from a basic leftist perspective—wants to impart to struggling young men rarely go beyond taking responsibility for one’s actions, avoiding violence, and acquiring the skills necessary to hold down a decent job or start a business. He sets up the problem in terms of alienation and isolation, but then his solutions are all in terms of programs that facilitate relationships which in turn help men to be useful.
It could be that our Western educational systems are simply not adequately communicating these inherently useful messages to young men. It could also be that our labour markets are terrible for young men who are not going to be engineers or physicians but still want to support a family. Yet another brief chapter, in which Jivani recounts a visit to Egypt, hints at why neither of these is a sufficient explanation. He meets with several people working with young men; they all mock the idea that sufficient jobs will make the problem of the Islamic extremism’s appeal go away. He explores some of the Western data suggesting that unemployment is far more profoundly alienating for men than for women and concludes that for men, employment is “more than money—it’s also about finding a place to belong.”
This brings to mind recent work by Raj Chetty showing how vulnerable black men are to becoming stuck in poverty, even when they start out in better circumstances. (Jivani doesn’t comment on this study, which is available at www.equality-of-opportunity.org.) The few protective factors found in this study are growing up in a community where there is less discrimination and less poverty, and there are more fathers present—all factors that Jivani references in his own story and the stories of the young men he meets. For those of us concerned about the dangers of alienation and loneliness for our civic health, there is a lot that can be done to ameliorate these issues and bring young men into healthier relationships; I’ll mention two that come through over and over in Why Young Men?
The first is to work for comprehensive policing reform. The justice that the state protects is fundamental to our flourishing, and alienation is inevitable when the police are suspect in their ability to provide justice. Jivani discusses how his own work in pushing for reforms was undermined both by activists more interested in making a spectacle than changing the system, and by recalcitrant forces that refused to see the problems that racist policing cause. True social integration and solidarity is impossible as long as young men don’t trust the police to follow the law, and those who decry the alienation of young men are sadly often some of the first to defend capricious policing in poor and minority communities.
The second is to find some way to discuss healthy masculinity without falling into tough-guy tropes on one side or stumbling around without anything distinctive to say about masculinity on the other. Jivani’s anecdotal research and broader data patterns are clear: fatherlessness profoundly harms children, and it seems to be worse for boys. If fatherlessness was a toxic industrial by-product, we’d demand that the government shut down the factories producing it. That may not be possible, but until we can promulgate a message of healthy masculinity—especially in one-to-one settings—that makes more sense to young men than the toxic version does, they’ll chase after whichever guru, gang recruiter, or internet crackpot catches their interest.
Why Young Men? never succinctly answers the question its title asks, and it only hints at solutions to the problems it raises. It does, however, reveal how racism creates fertile soil for rage and how the social, cultural, and economic forces young men experience stunt their identity formation and make them vulnerable to violent ideologies. Yet while Jivani never fully articulates a vision for positive masculinity, he’s still convinced that we can work for policy changes that can help. What feels most important to him, though, is overcoming the alienation that young men feel by building relationships with older men who have learned to live in a world that does not always accept them for who they are.