Race, kids, and a path to change

People in juvenile justice sometimes say: “If only we could get rid of poverty and racism, our work would be done.” It’s a recognition that the root causes of the horrible problems at-risk kids face are evils that have been with us for all of human history and show no sign of abating.

It’s a statement of resignation. I hate resignation.

Black children are nearly four times as likely to be arrested in Connecticut schools as their white peers, according to an analysis by Connecticut Voices for Children. Hispanic children are more than three times as likely to get arrested. Historically children of color were more likely to go to detention after being arrested on certain charges than whites facing the same offenses. (We’re waiting to see if recent policy changes have turned that around.)

These statistics are particularly disturbing when you consider that repeated national studies have found that adolescents of different races are strikingly similar in their behavior. In other words, children of color are entering the juvenile justice system for things that white children are not.

Nobody should be resigned to injustice on this scale. Certainly the enormity of the problem is daunting. We can’t outlaw racism – though we can and should pursue laws and policies that reduce its power to harm children. And we should insist upon transparent reporting that will show the extent of racial disparity in a given school, town or judicial district.

But ultimately racism is personal, and therefore it is possible to beat it back one person at a time. Connecticut Public Television recently produced a documentary about the role that race plays in the state’s juvenile justice system. We are partnering with CPTV and the governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee to host forums based on the film — for people who work in the system and for anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours learning more about what happens to kids in Connecticut. They also learn more about themselves –- and that’s why I think that the audiences at these forums deserve a standing ovation just for walking into the room.

When people see data that reveal racial disparity in their work, they often insist, “I’m not a racist.” They sincerely mean that. Multiple studies show that most white Americans harbor some kind of negative associations toward members of other races. But social scientists are clear that these negative associations are not conscious. In other words, we choose to reject racism. But the deeper recesses of our psyches have not gotten that memo.

Our unconscious prejudices do a world of harm. They’re the difference between calling the police or calling a child’s parents. They’re the difference between seeing a child as depressed or defiant. Ultimately, they are the difference between seeing a child as a work in progress who needs help and support –- or seeing a child as a criminal.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of Connecticut residents do not want to see children criminalized because of the color of their skin. They, in fact, believe it is wrong. But it happens with disheartening regularity.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that we must be the change we want to see in the world. I am also fond of a less quoted and harder truth of his: To believe in something and not to live it is dishonest.

Honesty is hard work. It is also the only path to real change -– personal or social. I urge everyone to check our website www.ctjja.org for a nearby Color of Justice forum and join us in this important work.

 

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