Snowflakes and Superpredators
Uncharitable labels that signal an intractable chasm // a declaration of ignorance and a humble foot forward
Millennials, and all generations to come of age in their wake, are snowflakes. Such is the cliché, and all clichés are true, including the cliché that all clichés are true. But this cliché tells only part of the story: snowflakes are the products of privilege, and privilege — by definition — is enjoyed only by the fortunate. Many members of the snowflake generations were sheltered into fragility; many others were shattered, early and often, by an astonishing absence of shelter, both emotional and physical; still others are being so shattered, right now as you’re reading this, perhaps not far from your front door. Somewhat ironic that social conservatives refer to youngsters with the term snowflake more and more while an older favorite “s-word” of theirs — superpredator — falls out of common parlance. No two words illustrate more powerfully the chasm glossed over by the term “snowflake generation.” Snowflakes and superpredators: young adults who grew up enjoying an abundance of shelter, and those who, to euphemize, did not.
Stereotypical snowflake: a white girl born in the suburbs to wealthy white parents — maybe on the Main Line, a few miles from Philadelphia — who went to a fancy private high school, inherited daddy’s BMW as one of many sweet sixteen presents, and then drove off in it to Oberlin without ever having ventured far beyond the borders of her luxurious suburban bubble. At Oberlin, critical theory popped the bubble. She dyed her hair, changed her pronouns, and started railing against the white-cis-hetero patriarchy. In the summer of 2020, she participated in the racial reckoning with an eye to public health by joining a BLM car caravan in daddy’s BMW.
Superpredator prototype: a black boy born in the inner city to a poor single mother — say, in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly — who went to, not just any subpar urban public school, but one of the most violent public schools in America, who walked over discarded heroin syringes on his way to that school every morning, who, instead of inheriting a BMW on his sweet sixteen, suffered a gunshot wound during the attempted carjacking of one, and who was receiving his first prison sentence while the girl from the Main Line was on her way to Oberlin. In prison, he was only further hardened by the brutality of inmates and correctional officers alike. He joined a gang for protection on the inside and had little choice but to stay affiliated on the outside. While the BLM car caravans were rallying to his cause, he was roughed up during an arrest for parole violation and sent back to prison.
The details here are contemporary but the outlines are dated. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” In spite of all that’s changed in the six decades since — the Civil Rights Act, the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the internet — King’s observation remains true. In certain respects, the phenomenon he observed has been exacerbated. The vast ocean of material prosperity has become only vaster. Certain creature comforts have washed up on the shores of the lonely islands of poverty, but the quality of life on those islands is still low, and in some respects, is lowering. In Philadelphia, the neighborhoods that were redlined in the early-mid twentieth century are still, for the most part, predominantly black and disproportionately poor. The city’s homicide rate is at historic heights and is highest in once-redlined neighborhoods. Same with opioid overdoses.
With islands of poverty, violence, and addiction, we are in many respects still living in King’s world. This in spite of the fact that we’ve waged a War on Poverty, a War on Crime, and a War on Drugs. It’s time we admit that the vast ocean of material prosperity is a miracle; that, for all our efforts to understand the wealth of nations, we don’t; that, putting aside the problem of political will, we don’t know how to lift islands of poverty into prosperity. Don’t mistake this for defeatism. Poverty, violence, and addiction are intractable problems because they’re complex beyond comprehension; they’re not, however, the only problems dragging down the quality of life on our lonely islands.
In Philadelphia, at least, one problem stands out as both disproportionately affecting communities of color and relatively simple to solve: the trash crisis. Keeping streets clean is a basic municipal service. You pick things up and dispose of them properly. We are not talking here of making impoverished communities prosperous, preventing violent crime, or curing drug addictions — we are talking only of putting garbage where it belongs.
It makes a certain amount of sense for our elders to describe us as snowflakes and superpredators. The labels are uncharitable, to be sure, but they’re labels rooted in the chasm King observed in 1963. Those who use the labels are also those who bequeathed to us a world dispiritingly similar to King’s. Let’s learn from their failures and begin to bridge the chasm indicated by their labels. Snowflakes, superpredators… streetcleaners.
After observing that the bus stop at Kensington Avenue and Clearfield Street “was, as usual, covered in garbage,” Naomi Wildflower wrote, in the pages of Kensington Voice, “I want to live in a functioning neighborhood with basic services.” Clean streets are the most basic service imaginable, our failure to provide them is absolutely pathetic, and this pathetic failure is harming our lonely islands of poverty the most. Surely, we can manage to remedy the failure. If not, then how could we be so arrogant as to think ourselves competent to take on the laundry list of other crises with which we’re faced?
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