The ARD spoke with Dr. Kristin Henning, Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic & Initiative at Georgetown Law and author of the new book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. Building on decades of experience representing youth defendants, Henning dissects the disastrous consequences of denying Black children the youth their white peers take for granted—and what we can do to make it right. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
• Support and follow the Gault Center and the Juvenile Justice Clinic & Initiative.
• Consider: how can you make sure you’re one of the “irrationally caring adults” for Black young people? How are you advocating for youth of color in your community?
Your book opens with the case of a student arrested for bringing an explosive device to school. How does this example illustrate the criminalization you discuss?
A Black 13-year-old boy, Eric, saw a Molotov cocktail in a movie. He thought, that looks cool, let me make something that looks like that. He doesn’t research it. He doesn’t ask anybody how to make it. He just goes into the kitchen, grabs a glass bottle, pours whatever liquids he can find, runs a piece of toilet paper from inside the bottle, and closes the cap. He plays with it. Eric doesn’t want it to spill out on his mother’s white carpet, so he slaps it in his book bag and forgets about it.
On Monday morning, he puts his book bag through the school’s metal detector. The school resource officer sees the bottle and asks what it is. Eric immediately responds, “Oh, that’s nothing. You can throw it away.” But the school resource officer doesn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. The police show up and escort him out of class. The fire department comes. The school gets evacuated. He gets arrested and prosecuted for possession of a Molotov cocktail and attempted arson at a school. Nobody believes him when he says, “I was not trying to blow up the school. I forgot it was in my bag!”
I told this story at a talk in Connecticut. A white woman came up to me afterward and said, “My son did the exact same thing, and he got placed in an advanced chemistry class.” Look at the stark contrast in how those two children were treated. My client, a Black male, got locked up and processed through the courts for nine months. Her son, a white male, was recognized for creativity and potential.
Is the issue of criminalization larger than just the institution of the police?
All of us in this country are complicit, often subconsciously, in the way we interpret and respond to normal adolescent behavior among Black children compared to white children.
We tend to read trauma responses among Black children as aggressive, violent behavior, whereas with a white, middle-class child we’re able to see that the child is suffering from trauma and respond accordingly.
We recognize testing boundaries, being creative, and experimenting as something to be tolerated and encouraged for young white people’s developmental trajectory. But Black kids can’t be kids, they can’t be adolescents, they’re not allowed to be creative and take risks and be emotional and find their identity—they don’t have that freedom.
What are other aspects of racist youth criminalization?
Think about how Black children are demonized and criminalized for their clothing. Now think back to the hippie era. Tie-dye shirts and bell-bottom pants were associated with hallucinogens and marijuana usage, but we never outlawed those clothes. Think about the all-black attire and straight black hair of the goth era, a style of clothing associated with mass shootings. We never outlawed that. Think about steel-toed Doc Martins with red shoelaces, claimed by some white supremacist groups. We never outlawed that. But it’s a criminal offense in cities across the country to wear sagging pants, a style associated with Black children.
Think about music. Country, heavy metal, rock, and pop music: all of these genres have the same types of misogyny, profanity, drug use, and sexual exploits, but that music is regarded as valuable. Rap music explores the same themes—often also exploring positive, political themes—and it’s considered the most dangerous music alive.
What can we do?
Every single child would do better with a team of irrationally caring adults in their life: people who will never stop supporting them. Find a way to connect with a young person of color, to come into proximity with young Black children and see them for their joy and creativity.
Advocate for mental health services in schools, counselors, restorative justice, and social-emotional learning instead of metal detectors and police officers. Make sure there’s racially-equitable access to parks and recreation in your city.
The Juvenile Justice Clinic & Initiative convenes monthly webinars, and we train youth advocates to challenge racial injustice in the juvenile legal system. The Gault Center does a ton of work. Almost all of the work I do at the JJC&I, I do in partnership with them.
No matter what position or profession you occupy, there is a way for you to engage around this issue. Find out more about the book and how to contact me at rageofinnocence.com. I really invite folks into this conversation.
• Black teenagers are criminalized for behavior seen as normal for white teenagers.
• Behavior, clothing, and music associated with Black children are all penalized.
• The subconscious biases are present in everyday life and institutions like schools and parks.