The United States of America has never been able to live a true humanism –– a humanism made to the measure of the world. The American humanist approach has stressed the value and goodness of human beings but has purposefully left out African Americans due to perceived fungibility of their lives from enslavement, to civil rights, to now. I argue that the neglect that African Americans endure in American society has stripped Black children of their ability to be children. Moreover, the ability to revoke the political power of childhood innocence from Black children has proved to be a potent aspect of White supremacy.
A History of Dehumanization
In 1669, Virginia passed an act justifying the casual killing of slaves. The act maintained that, if a slave was to die as a result of extreme punishment by their enslaver, the death would not be considered a felony. Because children as young as two or three often worked domestic chores, they were directly exposed to and the center of harsh punishments in the master's home. For reasons relating to malnutrition, lack of medical care, and cruel punishments, the death rate for Black children at this time was 26.3 (double the rate of White children).
In 1944, a Black 14-year-old, George Junius Stinney Jr., became the youngest person on record in the United States to be legally executed by the state. George was charged, tried, and convicted without any physical evidence. And, notoriously, in 1955, a 14-year-old Black boy named Emmett Till was dragged from his bed and lynched for allegedly whistling at a White woman (which was later dismissed as false in 2008).
Author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, Dr. David Livingstone Smith, argues that there are two psychological forces that fuel dehumanization: psychological essentialism and the belief that nature is arranged as a hierarchy. Psychological essentialism is the tendency to view all living things through the unique "essence" (inner quality) that allows them to be categorized. The essence is distinct from the the thing's outer appearance and that is what can be observed when analyzing the treatment of Black adults and children during enslavement. Even though Black Americans are human, they lacked a particular "human essence" (defined by White society) that rendered them unable to appeal to the human sensibilities of White Americans. Once a person is denied the ability to claim their humanity, it is then easy for them to be organized in a cosmic hierarchy that labels them "subhuman" or "not human enough." From here, White Americans have been able to justify state-sanctioned violence and morally obtuse treatments on the bases of Blacks not being "fully human." How did this impact Black children in ways that are still prevalent today?
Current Over-Policing and Disciplining
This set the stage for a life-long dehumanization of Black children. Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. But research conducted by Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff discovered that, Black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent." Dr. Goff's experiment involved showing undergraduate students photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of White, Black or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. The students overestimated the age of Blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than Whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found.
The "adultification" of Black children also impacts Black girls in a similar fashion. A report entitled, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood, revealed that American adults perceive Black girls to need less nurturing, protection,and comfort than White girls at the same age. Additionally, the survey revealed that American adults see Black girls as being more independent and keen on adult topics and sex than White girls of the same age.
Innocence isn't a characteristic given to Black children. They lose their childhood and are labeled as 'men', instead of 'boys' and' women' instead of 'girls'. This harmful (White supremacist infused) rhetoric has left its vestiges in the American Criminal Justice system and can be seen with the over-policing and hyper-punishment of Black children.
In 2012, Police in Georgia defended their decision to handcuff and arrest a kindergartener after she had a temper tantrum. In 2013, a 16-year-old girl in Alabama who suffers from diabetes, asthma, and sleep apnea was hit with a book by her teacher after she fell asleep in class. The student was later hospitalized and arrested after an interaction she had with law enforcement. Additionally, a Floridan pre-teen was given a week to cut her natural hair or be expelled from the private school she attended since third grade. When Michael Brown was killed, The New York Times described him as, "no angel." Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and failed to help Tamir Rice post-injury resulting in his death for playing with a toy gun. Moreover, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that Black students are suspended and expelled 3 times more than white students. And, while Black students only make up 16% of public school enrollment, they account for 42% of all students who have been suspended multiple times.
Due to the stereotypes that date back to enslavement, young Black children are viewed as inherently violent and lascivious. It should be noted that many of the children that are expelled from school more than their White peers have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. But, because they do not have access to the political and social protections of childhood innocence, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. Language surrounding childhood innocence are currently framed by racism and "let kids be kids" rhetoric are drenched in privilege. The aforementioned children were not afforded the privilege of being children. The entire construct of "innocence" needs to be abolished in favor of a justice system that values the equal protection under law. The cultural formation of innocence is around Whiteness and has been used to bolster White supremacist rhetoric. Whether a child is "innocent" or not, they deserve to be seen holistically, protected, and treated with care.