In an opinion piece this week in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology Department James Sutton argues that the poor social distancing practices of young people should not be the primary target for our contempt of the current outbreak and spread of the Coronavirus. Sutton reasons, “Ultimately, the revelry of young holiday partiers is enabled by bars who host them irresponsibly, governmental actors who decide to keep beaches and lakes open and not enact risk reduction mandates, and law enforcement officers who selectively opt to not enforce rules. In short, adults who should know better have set the stage for the youthful indiscretions that have subsequently garnered national media attention.”
A national expert in criminology, Sutton has played an integral role in the Second Chances Prison Education Program and has facilitated community-wide conversations on the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline. On campus, he has organized a speaker series related to crime, victimization and injustice, and in 2018, he was named the Civically Engaged Faculty Member of the Year.
Sutton earned an A.A. in liberal studies from Long Beach City College, B.A. in sociology from California State University, Long Beach, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology – with a concentration in crime and community – from Ohio State University. He has taught classes on criminology, social deviance, juvenile delinquency, research methods and sociology of sport in the Sociology Department at HWS since 2012.
The full editorial is listed below
“Young people are easy targets for our ire during coronavirus pandemic”
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
By James Sutton
Seeing hordes of unmasked and un-distanced young people partying in pools and on beaches and lakes is infuriating, and the thought of students competing to see who can catch the Coronavirus first at Covid parties is revolting. But if the flagrant disregard of public health evokes your ire, don’t just settle for the low hanging fruit.
British sociologist Stanley Cohen taught us long ago about folk devils, who through sensationalized media depictions are scapegoated for social problems and labeled as deviant. Folk devils are typically members of social groups that lack social power. They are met with hostility, and focusing on them deflects attention away from those with more power who lay more deeply at the root of our problems.
Young people are easily and frequently cast as folk devils. In the midst of the current record breaking spread of the Coronavirus in the U.S., we are right to be concerned about the ways in which youthful recklessness contributes to increases in infection. To accentuate the culpability of young people, however, is shortsighted.
Those in positions of power and trust typically transcend the same level of scrutiny that we impart on our youth. Ultimately, the revelry of young holiday partiers is enabled by bars who host them irresponsibly, governmental actors who decide to keep beaches and lakes open and not enact risk reduction mandates, and law enforcement officers who selectively opt to not enforce rules. In short, adults who should know better have set the stage for the youthful indiscretions that have subsequently garnered national media attention.
Given that young people are notorious for making careless decisions, we should not be surprised by their hedonism when they are invited to indulge. Business owners who profit off of young people’s irresponsibility and politicians who benefit politically from nonfeasance are most certainly more deserving of our scorn. Indeed, the Coronavirus itself has exploded across the U.S. largely because of chronic ineptitude and inaction at our highest levels of government, not because of the shenanigans of selfish teenagers.
To be clear, risky behavior by young people exacerbates the spread of the Coronavirus. It is troubling, and it should not be dismissed. But when choosing where to direct our outrage, we must look beyond the allure of scantily clad, inebriated college students in the water and on the sand. Adults in positions of power and trust have repeatedly and flagrantly disregarded public health for their own gain. Their deviant actions are less sensationalized than those of the young folk devils, but they are ultimately more reprehensible.
James Sutton is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology Department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.