City Year, capitalist ideology, and MLK

city year

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Martin Luther King Day, while civilized New Yorkers were sleeping in and avoiding the unbelievable cold, I had to get up early and trek out to Long Island City, Queens to volunteer my services as a, uh, volunteer. Of course the fact that I was forced to do this in no way reduces the “volunteer” aspect of my volunteer work.

In honor of Dr. King, a gaggle of City Year volunteers threw a big service day bash around the nation, our local (!) iteration of which took place at a high school in Long Island City. The ceremony began with an invigorating round of boot-camp-style calisthenics on command. Along with ROTC kids, the uniformed City Year volunteers talked the audience through their synchronized call-and-response PT regimen. Then there was the formal inauguration of City Year Young Heroes, sponsored by Bank of America among others, in which a group of middle schoolers pledged to emulate, “the values of courage, compassion, cooperation, and commitment” by pledging their Saturdays to various community service projects over the next 5 months.

city year

Fabulously rich NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg put in an appearance, and encouraged the youths in the spirit of Dr. King, reminding them that “everyone can be a hero!”

Several ideas started to kick around in my head:

  • The rigid discipline and Boy Scout-like enthusiasm of the City Year types is kind of freaky.
  • The lack of talk about the history of struggle or social justice movements is kind of conspicuous, especially if you’re supposed to be honoring Martin Luther King
  • The similarity of City Year’s enthusiastic idealism to nationalist rhetoric is striking

Althusser, a 20th century French philosopher who liked to read Marx, describes the way that every Subject is recognized and needs recognition. The Subject then recognizes and calls out to another, interpellating him as a Subject. Thus, every Subject is always already embroiled with others. He borrowed this idea from his friend Jacques Lacan and used it to complete his notion of ideology. Ideology is the discourse through which individuals become subject to the state. It is the basis for how the State gets people to conform, thus reproducing the conditions of production which are crucial to the State’s existence. (Since Althusser was writing, “State” power became largely de-centralized and currrently seems to reside not in the halls of government, but in the hands of elite transnational corporations) In the case of City Year, the notion of individual capacity for change co-opts people into a group while at the same time subverting the fact that only community-based concerted social (read: economic) action will produce change.

This was a fact of which Dr. King himself was very aware: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”*

I’m of the opinion that City Year types parading around in their red jackets with their T-Mobile phones and Bank of America middle schoolers won’t promote awareness, education, or change in the long run. No matter how many jumping jacks they do. Still, I’m willing to put up with their philanthropy…I mean, it’s for a good cause!

But using King as your poster boy is crossing the line.

Open your eyes!


RIP Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


2 Responses to “City Year, capitalist ideology, and MLK”

  1. Xray Cadberry Says:

    capitalist co-option of King’s legacy is evident when visiting “A $10 million Congressional match was achieved at the February 28, 2006 Los Angeles Dream Dinner with the announcement of The Walt Disney Company Foundation donation” reads the federal appropriations section of the website. I wonder how Dr. King would feel about Disney’s role in financing how his memory is passed down through the generations? It’s sadly ironic that Disney will inevitably use the hero who stood in opposition to their racial superiority child indoctrination to advertise it’s brand.

  2. Xray Cadberry Says:


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