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How America criminalizes Black youth

Book cover for "Rage of Innocence" by Kristin Henning

Drawing upon twenty-five years of experience representing Black youth in Washington, D.C.’s juvenile courts, Kristin Henning confronts America’s irrational, manufactured fears of these young people and makes a powerfully compelling case that the crisis in racist American policing begins with its relationship to Black children. Her book is "The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth."

Kristin Henning is a nationally recognized trainer and consultant on the intersection of race, adolescence, and policing. She is the Blume Professor of Law and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at the Georgetown University Law Center; from 1998 to 2001 she was the lead attorney of the Juvenile Unit at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Awards she has received include the 2021 Leadership Prize from the Juvenile Law Center and the 2013 Robert E. Shepherd, Jr. Award for Excellence in Juvenile Defense from the National Juvenile Defender Center.


Joe Donahue - Our next guest is the Blum, Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at the Georgetown University Law Center. She's also the author of the new book, "The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth." The book is out from Pantheon. It's a great pleasure to welcome Kristin Henning to The Roundtable this morning. Kristen, thank you very much for being with us. What a great pleasure.

Kristin Henning - Thank you for having me,

Joe Donahue - Let us just take a look at the title itself of 'The Rage of Innocence" -- how that tells this story in the book.

Kristin Henning - So really, the rage of innocence is, as a global starting point is the rage that we should all have, anytime we deprive a single child of the opportunity to grow and flourish as a child. And so this book is all about the ways in which we criminalize normal adolescent behaviors among black children. It's all about the ways in which we are afraid of black children. And so therefore, we, our children in our country are more likely to be arrested. Black children are more likely to be arrested for things that a white child quite frankly, would never be arrested for. Also, once a child is referred to the legal system, he or she is more likely to face severe punishments: detention, placement in secure confinement, at the time of sentencing, things of that nature. And I should say that this criminalization happens not only by police officers, but by us as civilians, in the ways in which we engage with youth. So that's the -- black youth in particular -- so that's the macro lens. The other piece of that title, the other aspect of the title, "The Rage of Innocence" - is also what happens if we repeatedly tell black children that they're bad, right? That we repeatedly tell black children that they're not worthy, or they're not, that they should be excluded, that they're dangerous, that they're criminal, like anyone else, black children resist those labels, they push back on those labels, and they push back and resist those labels in whatever ways they can. They're adolescents, and so sometimes that looks like talking back. Sometimes it looks and sounds aggressive, in ways that, really, again, our normal adolescent children are fairness fanatics, and they're loyal to their family and to themselves. And they're struggling with their identities. And so any attack on that identity is going to be met with resistance. And so some of that is also reflected in the title.

Joe Donahue - I think you you write about this beautifully, but it's ultimately how discriminatory and aggressive policing has socialized a generation of black teenagers to fear the police to resent the police and ultimately to resist the police. Talk a little bit about that socialization?

Kristin Henning - Absolutely. I would say that the relationships between police officers and black youth is really facing a crisis. We're in a crisis. And it's probably a recurring crisis, probably resembling like what we saw in the civil rights era, in the era of protest by black children against it, you know, protest for their civil rights. And today, you see that protest play out against police brutality. So but yes, black children today are socialized, we socialized now, a generation multiple generations of black children to fear and to in many ways resent the police. And that starts at home. Because why? Parents, black parents, really have no choice but to teach their children about the risk the potential risks of a police encounter. And so parents, black parents try their best to teach their children to comply with the police. "Do whatever the police say, do whatever you need to do to get home safe," that basic survival technique that parents convey, but at the same time, we recognize that those necessary survival strategies also cultivate fear within black children and began to build a bit of resentment. So 1: It starts in the family. It continues for many black children who attend schools in in heavily policed, heavily surveilled school environments. So, they enter the front door and they face a security guard, they go through metal detectors, they walk through the school with surveillance cameras, children are - increasingly black children and brown children - are increasingly arrested at school referred to the courthouse. So in many ways, the school has become a literal and figurative extension of the criminal legal system. So they see it there. Black children also have multiple encounters with the police in their neighborhoods. Again, I have many clients that I write about in the book that talk to me about living in communities where police constantly engage them with questions like: "Where are you going?" "Where are you coming from?" "Where are your parents?" Black children are being asked to "lift your shirt so I can see your waistband." And so you and I take it for granted that we can walk about society walk about our neighborhoods and our parks without the intrusion of a police officer unless there is some clear articulable reason that we have engaged in some criminal activity. That is not the reality for so many black children that I work with, instead, no matter what they're doing, playing, laughing, talking in a park, they are confronted and engaged in these ways. And so that's that's that socialization that we're talking about.

Joe Donahue - You also key into the the long term consequences of this - of the racism that they experienced at the hands of the police. Really a consequence that yes, is is born and brought out as they are our children and adolescents, but obviously stays with them throughout their lives.

Kristin Henning - Absolutely, so there is a growing body of research demonstrating the extraordinary psychological trauma that black and Latinx children face or experience as a result of the hyper surveillance and aggressive policing in those neighborhoods - in black and brown neighborhoods. The research shows that black children who have been the target of significant police stops, face high rates of fear, anxiety, depression, hyper vigilance, meaning that they're always on guard, right, always afraid, distrusting others, like police officers, and that distrust the police officers transfers over to other state actors sometimes translates to teachers, probation officers, other adult authority figures. So, that's a real problem. In addition, not only are black children, the target, the direct target of these - or the direct recipients, I should say, of these traumatic experiences. But they experience very similar symptoms, even from watching or hearing about these police encounters involving family, friends, someone that they're close to a recent set of studies have shown that even watching police brutality on television or online has the same kind of effect -- even involving people that the young person doesn't even know. And we certainly know this to be true. If we think about all of the adolescents, all of the teenagers, who watched George Floyd die on television, right? And have seen old clips of Tamir Rice dying on television or on the internet. And so all of that has an immediate psychological consequence and a long term traumatic effect on the mental health and the physical health of children. You know, research shows that people who live with extended periods of stress and anxiety have long term physical consequences. And then the last thing I'll say about this is something you alluded to in your question is that: We all as a society need to understand that the ways in which young people perceive the law and law enforcement during their adolescent years really becomes fixed in their minds and in their understanding has a long term impact on how they engage with law enforcement as they become adults. And so young people during their adolescence who have negative encounters, or observed negative encounters with the police, during that developmental stage will often grow up to be adults who began one to question themselves, and their own identity and whether they belong in society. But they also questioned the legitimacy of law enforcement. Right? And so that's not good for any of us as a society.

Joe Donahue - Kristen Henning is our guest on The Roundtable this morning. The name of the new book is "The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth." I was really struck by a story that you tell in the book: there is a young man that that you call Kevin in the book and a call and said that the police are waiting for him out front. That's the way the story starts. And his his mom and says they're not out there for you. And you you tell us a story about Kevin's backstory, he is a kid, he sells weed, he sells a lot of weed. But the fact is, is that he's been stopped no fewer than 50 times, mostly in a three block radius, the radius of his of his home. And at times, those stops are fair and justified. However, he's also been in court more times than, as you say, than than I can count, has pled guilty to some charges and has fought others. The point that you make though, the line that really struck me was that when he when he called to say that the police were waiting for him outside. His mom thought he was being paranoid. You say I thought Kevin was traumatized. Talk about that idea of the traumatization. of something like that of yes even if you're not always doing the right thing of how that trauma exists.

Kristin Henning - Absolutely, I mean, Kevin's story is painful, in so many ways. And it's really a perfect example of the trauma that I that I that I laid out. What it must be like, every single day to engage with a police officer. I mean, most of us as adults, we should just count for ourselves. How many times do you see a police officer or some sort of law enforcement officer? You can go through days without seeing anyone or having any contact. With some children like my client, Kevin, lives with police just as a routine presence and it becomes paralyzing for him. There are a number of both qualitative and more empirical studies demonstrating that young people today -- one described policing as one of the leading barriers to adolescent health and well being, and that the ways in which young people learn to cope with that trauma is by avoidance. So there was a fabulous study in 2016, a qualitative study that interviewed young people from five major cities including Boston, Chicago, St. Paul, and what those young people said that they would avoid public spaces, right. So you and I take it for granted that our children can go to the neighborhood park and frolic and play in the sun, but young black children fear even walking outside. So many of the stories that I tell and I weave throughout this book, are precisely that this narrative of young people who've grown up with these traumas. Therefore, they are deprived this very basic fundamental necessity of adolescents and people are shocked when I talk about recreation, leisure, and play as a necessity. But again, the research shows us that for healthy adolescent development, to make us good adults, we have to have that play. Play relieves stress, it relieves anxiety, it helps build social skills. There's so many benefits and value to recreation and leisure during our adolescent years. But trauma, trauma, has black children paralyzed psychologically and then in reality, right? And so what was fascinating to me about that story, as you indicated, my clients mother was in the background, and she really wasn't processing, she's a wonderful mom, but she wasn't processing the signs or the symptoms that her son had of trauma. And so she thought he was just being paranoid and was afraid to go outside because he, you know, was "assuming" that the police officers were out to get him, even though it was at the moment an irrational thought. But I immediately thought, no, these are signs of trauma. This is a child who is terrified of getting stopped and frisked and harassed. And you made a really good point in your question that many of the empirical researchers looked at the question: Does the trauma differ when the child it admits that he or she is guilty of a crime? And the answer was no, the answer was no. And we can if we really wrap our heads around that, that makes sense, right? So even if I do something guilty, there's a couple of layers why I feel might be terrified and resentful. One of which is I recognize, hey, I smoked weed. But I know down the street the white kid who looks you know, is the same age as me is smoking weed and you're not stopping him. Right? So there's that the young people recognize racial disparity. And then the second aspect of it is, I'm still afraid, even when I'm guilty, because I'm afraid of what you might do to me, whether I might get hurt, whether I might get injured. And so the stress and the trauma is still there even if children are engaged in these abnormal, you know, adolescent delinquent offenses.

Joe Donahue - Kristin Henning is our guest, the name of the new book is "The Rage of Innocence." You do end this book on a note of hope, and I want to get to that, but before we do: there is a chapter in the book called "The Dehumanization of Black Youth," and you csite in that chapter" "In 2015, at least 75,900 youth under the age of 18 were prosecuted as adults in the United States. A staggeringly disproportionate number of those youth were black, although youth, black youth made up only 15% of all youth under juvenile court jurisdiction in the United States, in 2018." So let us just talk about that moment. Because as you detail in this chapter of what happens to kids to children, as they are becoming adults are almost forced into an adult system, criminal justice system, which is very damaging.

Kristin Henning - Right. And so the starting point for this is understanding that we live in a country that is that is deeply committed to its children, we value childhood, and adolescence. And so that's a really important premise. When we think about deviating from those notions of childhood innocence, and childhood protection, we think about deviating from that in the criminal legal system. And we think about deviating from those values and commitments for black children. And so that plays out also in a number of ways, one of which is in the legal system, we as a country made a decision that we would have separate juvenile courts, that we recognize that young people are often, when they engage in delinquent behaviors, are the product of their environment, product of pure influence. More important, we recognize that young people are amenable to rehabilitation. We have a commitment to giving young people a second chance we can all remember when we were teenagers, and the stupidest thing we did, you know, might have even been technically criminal. But yet our parents and society gave us another chance. And what we see this chapter, you know about the dehumanization is about the ways in which we have decided as a country that we don't value black children in the same way. And in fact, America has a long history of dehumanizing black children from the era of slavery, when enslaved black children were seen as the property of the, you know, the plantation owner. All the way into the civil rights era with the lynching of Emmett Till, which was very much a symbolic statement, that we will not tolerate the integration of black children into our schools. And so in order to justify that brutality, that lynching, we have to paint children as less black children as less than human. We have to paint black children as a threat. And so in Emmett Till's case, the message was that Emmett Till was a threat to white women. That he was a sexual deviant needed, we needed to protect him. All of that allows us as a society without empathy - to transfer, or to kill in that case, and later to transfer black children to adult courts, where they will be sentenced, incarcerated with adults, who are, you know, potentially a threat to them, putting them in the custody of adult correctional guards who have no training and expertise in working with young people. And so all of that has been part and parcel of our dehumanization of black children, I should really make this point - ties to this question and your last question, which is, so when people talk about the transfer of children from juvenile court to adult court, we are thinking of black children as being violent and dangerous. And the reality is that so many black children get referred to juvenile court and sometimes even adult court for low level offenses, not the rape, the murder, and the violent offenses that most of us think that that they are being accused and charged with. So we, we make the decision to transfer a child a black child to adult court, we are saying we've got no hope for the rehabilitative potential of that young person. And we're more likely to say that, and to believe that about a black child, there's been empirical research, demonstrating that we as a society, both law enforcement and civilians perceive black children to be older than they really are significantly older than they really are. One wonderful study by Philip Atiba Goff and his colleagues found that they were officers and civilians who perceived black children to be 4.53 and 4.59 years older than they actually are, which, you know, allows us - without empathy - to try children, black children as adults, to use force on black children and to fear black children.

Joe Donahue - So as we wrap up, for you - looking at and having worked with these kids for so long and seeing what they have gone through, and yes, seeing them grow up. Where does the hope lie?

Kristin Henning - The hope lies ... I think the hope lies in a couple of things. One is we're at a pivotal moment in society, there's been an incredible attention to race relations right now. A renewed commitment to racial equity in many circles, not entirely, we're still very polarized around these questions. But I do think that we are in a moment where people are beginning or again resuming these conversations. And I think that the conversation is increasingly including or considering the nuances of adolescence; race and adolescence. So, I say that to say I get invited to speak far more often than I ever have to various stakeholder groups within the legal system, for example; judges, prosecutors, probation officers, police officers are interested in having these conversations more than ever before. So I think that's one source of hope, thinking about how we share these narratives, for example, that are in my book. How do we share the research and the data that is in my book? So that's one. I also think that there, there is hope in the young people, meaning the black youth themselves. And I end you know, you talked about the end of the book, you know, I call it "black boy joy" and "black girl magic," adolescent resilience is the focus there, and the ways in which young people are learning to speak up for themselves. And so I say one of the lines that I have in the book if you want to know how to make the lives of black children better ask them. So my hope lies in opportunities for all of us, all of your listeners, to engage with black youth, as a way of, one: relinquishing some of those fears, as a way of getting to know a young person and seeing their worth and their value, and their joy and their absolute normal adolescence is a really important first step and then getting ideas from them. Right? The onus isn't on them to change The adults have to change too, right? But getting ideas from them about how they can be included in the democratic process, how can they flourish and thrive and vocational opportunities and interests, you know, their own vision for what a healthy and inclusive America would look like. You know, I have some hope. Because I have to have hope, because I do the work. I have hope that there is a movement afoot, the Police Free Schools Movement, which is not an abolitionist response to police officers, but it is a commitment to look at the role of police officers and figure out what it is that we really need police to do, what it is that police officers are most equipped to do. And then to relieve them of all those tasks and responsibilities that they are not equipped are well suited to do. We need more mental health counselors and providers in schools a greater commitment to social emotional learning in schools, you know, smaller class sizes, all of these things that keep our children safe and allow them to serve to flourish and thrive in the schools. I have hope that some of those things can come about.

Joe Donahue - Well, the name of the new book is "The Rage of Innocence: How America criminalizes Black Youth." The book is published by Pantheon, Kristin Henning, I thank you so much for the great work you do and for sharing with us this morning, a delight to have you on the program.

Kristin Henning - Thank you again so much for having me. I really appreciate your programming.

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Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.