Age apartheid is an important theoretical concept that I will return to frequently in discussions on youth rights. This blog post is intended to give readers some idea of what I refer to when I speak about age apartheid.
When we refer to apartheid, whether in the case of racial apartheid in the former South Africa, gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, or class and caste apartheid in medieval England or pre-independence India we refer to an arrangement in which segregation and unequal treatment are enshrined as ideals in law and custom. Although there are meaningful differences among various types of apartheid and the manifestations they assume in different contexts, they all share common features and one can easily find clear parallels by thinking about them together.
Our school system is perhaps the greatest agent of age-based segregation in a society that promotes age segregation at every turn. In fact, it doesn’t even stop at segregating youth from adults or minors from those who have reached the age of majority. It goes so far as to segregate youth from other youth just a year or two older than themselves and to enforce this segregation during the study of academic subjects, during play times, while students eat, and at all other times during the school day.
Even outside of schools, other features of age apartheid are evident. Age restrictions on what people can purchase, what media they can consume, what public facilities they may enter, and what activities they may engage in are so built into the fabric of our society that while debates exist as to what particular age restriction should be attached to something, the presence of these restrictions themselves is virtually unquestioned.
While the stated reason for keeping a young person out of an R-rated movie or a bar is to protect him from corrupting ideas and harmful substances, this puritanical obsession with controlling the minds and bodies of the young is only part of the equation. Another dimension of these practices is to ensure that young people are adequately segregated from adults. This intention becomes more obvious when one takes account of the increasingly common practice of barring children from weddings, restaurants, and other community functions and facilities widely regarded as wholesome. While in past generations celebrations like weddings marked a time for community members from newborns to senior citizens to come together, today they often serve as one more juncture at which age apartheid is enforced and adults cut themselves off from the youngest members of their community. While barring youth from restaurants is not legally enforced in the same way as barring youth from nightclubs, for instance, there is a great degree of overlap in the logic driving these practices that is worth noting.
Another aspect of apartheid involves constant reminders of the second class status of the oppressed group. Much as Saudi women are required to obey legally recognized male guardians, so youth are required to obey legally recognized adult guardians. Runaway and truancy laws are especially flagrant examples of the degree to which youth perceived as exercising too much independence are quickly put back in their place by a society that hates self-determination in young people. Signs proclaiming “21 and over to enter” and “You must be born on date X to buy cigarettes” rub youths’ noses in the fact of their socially prescribed inferiority.
Much as apartheid regimes from the Jim Crow American South to contemporary Israel display a unique panic and loathing regarding interracial, interreligious, and/or interethnic sex and marriage, so our society displays a similar sense of panic surrounding intergenerational sex involving minors, even when it is consensual and involves youth who are biological adults. Much as this panic in the antebellum and Jim Crow American South spilled over into an obsession with separating blacks from whites in any number of completely platonic contexts lest it lead to the dreaded catastrophe of interracial sex, our society looks with extreme suspicion upon adults engaging in friendships of any sort with minors lest it lead to sexual activity between people from different age groups. In our collective rush to protect children from sexual predators, we often deny them many platonic relationships which could stand to enrich the lives of all involved. We also criminalize much consensual and wanted sexual activity, thereby ruining the lives of many decent people and denying agency to youth themselves.
There is a great degree of segregation in American society based upon race, sex, religion, class, ethnicity, occupation, and a host of other factors. While some of this is harmful and likely due to larger social forces far removed from the realm of individual choices, some of this is likely inevitable and a matter of individual choices showing striking effects in the aggregate. What makes age apartheid unique in contemporary America is the degree to which this segregation is enshrined as an ideal in nearly all sectors of society and in nearly all major institutions.