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The Criminalization of Black Youth and the Rise of Restorative Justice

Kai Wright at #truthicon. (Photo: Berkman Center for Internet & Society)

In the spring of 2014, on two separate occasions, African-American teenagers – a 15-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy – were pushed through windows by police. Fortunately, both teens survived their encounter, though it was a very close call for the boy. No reports of white teens being pushed through windows by police have been discovered. These violent incidents are just a couple of examples of how, for many African-Americans, youth offers little hope and few niceties.

“Black children are dehumanized to such an extent that they aren’t perceived as children at all,” writes Margaret Kimberly in “Police Target Black Children.” Citing a new report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kimberly says African-American children “are assumed to be older, less innocent and inherently guilty.”

Along with racial profiling and other legal harassment, like stop-and-frisk, being pushed through a window by police has apparently become a new reality for brown-skinned kids. Yet how is such aggression and violence justified by law enforcement, and are these incidents to be imagined as mere coincidence – or explained as reflective of black pathology rather than police pathology?

Among extrajudicial deaths at the hands of police and white vigilantes, the tragic stories of Travon Martin and Oscar Grant have garnered media attention, but are also highly contested narratives. Less talked about is the institutionalized climate of fear that has been normalized for brown-skinned youth – the daily domestic terror by police.

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an associate professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY, and in a 2011 article spoke to this type of fear conditioning, as contextualized in New York’s “Stop and Frisk”:

In 2009, of 576,394 stops and frisks [that] were performed . . . 84 percent of them were on blacks and Latinos. This is astronomically high, given that black and Latino compose roughly 26 and 27 percent of the population, respectively. The harassment that men of color often undergo via the police is a constant pressure. When walking through Harlem, I routinely see black boys approached by undercover officers and forced to submit to “random searches.”

These searches are anything but random and serve to make young boys and men feel unsafe in their own communities. In the same way that young men of color are subject to an “invisible force” that disrupts their life without consent, young women of color feel the same. Somehow we live in communities where both men and women of color feel unsafe, displaced and harmed by harassment.

To this point, journalist Kai Wright, editor-at-large of Colorlines and a reporting fellow of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, says that in the domain of law enforcement, African-American children are seen not only as threatening, but as “monsters.” In addition to his writing, Wright is also at present working on a video series, “Life Cycles of Inequality.” In a June 5 interview with Truthout, when asked to what extent he observes harsh and unjust treatment toward African-American youth by public school security officers and local police departments, Wright replied that the “harsh discipline that we’ve seen scale up in schools has been uniquely reserved for black students,” and that “from their academics to discipline,” there is this “idea that they are disruptive.”

Wright speaks to an insidious institutional problem that continues to unfold. We examine it in two discussions below: a phone interview with Kai Wright, and then an on-site interview with Chief Allen Nance – the chief probation officer of San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall – on June 13, 2014

Max Eternity for Truthout: In your article, “Preying on Black Ambition,” you quote President Obama as saying: The key to “winning the future,” is to get educated. Yet further in the article, you quote the Economic Policy Institute’s finding that “45 percent of African-Americans born into the middle class were living at or near poverty as adults, and that for “too many, school has greased the downward slide.” Please explain this further?

Kai Wright (KW): What I was trying to get at is that education has always been the golden ticket for African American ambition. For my parent’s generation, this was the thing: You get [an education], and that would be the ticket to the middle class.

The article focused on the ways in which the predatory capitalists have exploited that ambition with these for-profit schools, but to look at this broadly – how predatory capitalists have done this repeatedly, via subprime mortgages, for instance – there is a way in which the combination of the lack of opportunity in the American dream that you can pull yourself up if you follow these sets of [get an education] rules that make blacks vulnerable to predation. With the for-profit schools, people do not come out of them with jobs. They come out with enormous debts, because these schools are run by financiers, not by educators.

Toward the end of the article, you say that in the ambition to reach the middle class, the experience for many blacks is that from “subprime credit cards through to subprime home loans and now on into subprime education, we’ve reached again and again for the trappings of middle-class life, only to find ourselves slipping further into debt and poverty.” This sounds neither accidental nor fair?

KW: I think that the triumph of the Reagan revolution is to have changed our conversation around equity from what systems have driven these outcomes – that we have a 2-to-1 black unemployment rate, historically, so what systems drove those statistics? That had been the conversation, and went to what have individuals done to improve themselves?

In another of your articles, entitled “Obamas to Black Grads: Good Job. Now Stop Being Such a Failure,” you say that Michele and Barack Obama, and historically other elitist blacks, lecture young aspiring blacks about personal responsibility’s triumph over structural inequity, and to stop making “excuses.”

KW: So if we have this 2-to-1 unemployment rate, that’s because blacks are doing this to themselves?

There is a strain of black conservatism that Barack Obama picks up with, which is that we can’t affect the system, we can only control ourselves. And that’s true as far as it goes, but when you’re the leader of the wealthiest nation on the planet, you also have some power to change the system. So, it’s disappointing for to him to look at what individuals should do instead of looking at what his personal responsibility is.

Margaret Kimberly of Black Agenda Report wrote that black children “are dehumanized to such an extent that they aren’t perceived as children at all. They are assumed to be older, less innocent and inherently guilty.” But is it just the police or the dominant culture-at-large? I’m thinking of Trayvon Martin, for instance.

KW: If you’ve seen my new film series, you would see. It was really bracing in the conversation with these 8 young men. We thought we would have to guide them through, and two hours later we had to stop. We had so much footage we could use! Ranging from their academics to discipline; it’s this idea that they are disruptive.

What does this mean? It means that from a very young age – for young black men, and women – you’re wrestling with the idea that people think you’re a threat . . . from the beginning. So that’s your starting point for many inside institutions.

The harsh discipline that we’ve seen scale up in schools has been uniquely reserved for black students.

We know that the harsh police policies have been uniquely reserved for black neighborhoods. So we know what it means for the system: this cultural idea that young black men, and again for women too, that they are disruptive threats, that people see you as a monster. And by the way, these were middle-class black kids [in the film] that we were talking too. But still, when we asked this one question, we had to stop talking about it because it went on for two hours.

Could you talk further about the conversation with these eight kids in your podcast series, “Life Cycles of Inequality?”

KW: At its core, we spent the better part of two years talking in a deep and challenging conversation about young black men dying early. We here at Colorlines spent an enormous amount of time talking about death and how the legal system responds to that death. And it is clear to me that we cannot have that conversation until we talk about these young men’s lives.

“The reality is that we have built, not just an economy, but a culture and a society on inequity.”

The sober reality is that we see a system that is built to kill them. So we’re going to spend 7 months looking at each stage of life, in the way that black men uniquely deal with that life.

We will look at the labor market, criminalization, the cultural economy, the mortality rate and fatherhood.

This sounds like a much-needed exploration, yet what exactly is needed to get on track? Where’s the hope – what do young black people have to look forward to?

KW: The occupation hazard is that [laughs] I spend more time on problems than solution, as a journalist. But you know, I’ll say that it is a holistic response that is needed.

We often want to say that if we just did job training or if everybody got health insurance, but the reality is that we have built, not just an economy, but a culture and a society on inequity. We’ve spent the vast majority of American history building on that foundation.

In the most expansive idea of where we are today, we’ve been working on it for a generation. So, we’re going to have to look at everything we do.

It’s rather looking at all of our institutions in society and asking how do we make equity; in the schools, in the job market, in all of it. It’s more about realigning our politics to create equity.

Nance Interview

In tandem with the independent observations of Kai Wright, I interviewed a government employee from a prominent city who is directly involved in the lives of troubled young people: Chief Allen Nance, the chief probation officer at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall.

Max Eternity for Truthout: What is the mission of this facility, and how do you ensure it is fulfilled?

Allen Nance (AN): Our mission is to work with young people who are referred to the juvenile justice system, so that we appropriately assess their risks, their needs – that we understand the circumstances that brought them to us. Our mission is to rehabilitate those young people, to hold them accountable, to preserve public safety.

Is “restorative justice” incorporated into the work done here – if so, could you give an example?

AN: Sure, we have a project that we’re currently working on with the district attorney’s office and a not-for-profit, Community Works, which is based in Oakland but has offices here in San Francisco, where through an initiative with the National Council of Crime and Delinquency we’ve launched an initiative to divert young people from the juvenile justice system instead of traditional prosecution, if, in fact, they are willing to participate in a restorative justice program, which essentially brings the young person and the victim – the offended – together; to talk about the offense, to develop a plan to restore the victim, and to engage the young person in a plan to address the factors that led them to commit the offense in the first place.

One of the underpinnings of how we work with young people is in finding ways to develop more victim empathy, to develop a sense of understanding of how their conduct impacts their communities in which they live.

Is this done in group sessions, or one-on-one counseling – how is this done?

AN: Both. So, probation officers have been trained in motivational interviewing, which is an accepted technique to engage young people to engage some level of ambivalence around the criminal or self-destructive conduct that they’re involved in, and to get them to a point where there is at least some degree of acknowledgement and readiness to embrace a strategy toward changing that behavior.

What is the approximate racial and gender makeup of those in custody, and length of stay?

AN: I would say that approximately 65 to 75 percent of them are African American. I’d say that about 10 to 15 percent of them are Latino. We have 3 to 5 percent Asian [and] 1 percent or less Caucasian.

Gender breakdown is about 85 percent male and 15 percent female. These are all minors. They are all under the age of 19, and the average age is somewhere in the neighborhood of about 15 to 16 years old.

When a young person arrives here, do you see a pattern of what brought them to you – in listening to their stories and looking at the documentation?

“The degree of trauma that many young people in the juvenile justice system have experienced cannot be denied, and it cannot be ignored in terms on its impact on their decision making, on their choices.”

AN: I would say that there certainly are characteristics that young people in the system share. Based on those statistics that I just shared, they are often kids of color; kids who live in poverty; kids who frequently live in public housing or other impoverished communities; kids who have experienced a tremendous amount of victimization, either abuse, neglect or dependency.

At home or in the community or institutionally?

AN: When I talk about abuse and neglect, I’m talking primarily about what happens in their family homes. They have either experienced it firsthand or witnessed domestic violence at home.

And would you say that these are young people who have had limited opportunity and possibility from an early age and really have not even seen for themselves their own potential?

AN: Not only would I agree with that statement, I would say that we have seen what happens when we have engaged these young people and provide them with opportunities to explore the arts, culture, to improve their academics, to be engaged in a therapeutic environment . . . ah, quite honestly, to be surrounded by pro-social, positive adults who are sending them positive messages and who represent individuals on which these young people can rely.

We have seen how quickly they embrace that, and how effectively they benefit from that.

So, you’re saying: they want it?

AN: Very much so.

Many of the young people in our system have seen violence firsthand. Many of them know other teenagers or young adults that have died, or have even witness the murder of some of their friends. And so, the degree of trauma that many young people in the juvenile justice system have experienced cannot be denied, and it cannot be ignored in terms on its impact on their decision making, on their choices.

I think there are scientists out there that would say – on their brain development – that . . .

. . . that trauma has had some effect on their brain development?

AN: Absolutely. And so, we are only beginning to understand the real impacts of trauma on brain development and how it affects how young people approach the world and how they make decisions in the world.

Those are very important factors that we cannot ignore when a young person is presented to us.

Would you say that the juvenile justice system used to be more disciplinary?

AN: It was far more punitive, and what we learned over the years is that intervention in the juvenile justice system has to be truly rehabilitative. And that means we have to use evidence – we have to use best practices. We have to use strategies that are designed to change behavior, to build capacity, and to empower young people to make better choices when they leave us.

What would you like to see happen in government and/or communities that might better address the needs of young people?

AN: I think we have to do a better job of paying attention to the adverse conditions that young people experience; especially young people-of-color in our community.

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