"Just a Kid”: On Race, Youth, and Forgiveness.

The now infamous image of two cultural symbols interacting and spreading media reactions like wildfire.

Let me start this post by saying this: the Covington kids are minors. If you were on your “live in a hole and hope that when I emerge the world will be a better place” sabbatical, you may have missed the media frenzy following a group of high school students and their encounter with an Indigenous elder last week. This event has been cast and recast, seen through “left” and “right” commentary, at least three different video perspectives, and the shifting and changing opinions of those in the commentariat who have variously cast this as a distillation of all that’s wrong with America, all that’s wrong with the media, or all that’s wrong with polarized discourse. And, I suppose, in many ways it is a commentary on all of that. Certainly the picture of the Native elder, Nathan Phillips, and one of the high schoolers, Nick Sandmann, has entered into the realm of the symbolic. These are no longer human actors in much of the commentary surrounding this event, but symbols for a wide variety of ideological points of view. But, it is a man, a Native elder. And, again, they ARE kids. But this claim, neatly distilled down to the “just a kid” defense, is what I would like to talk about.

This aspect of the role of “youth” in assessing behavior is an important consideration here I think, but let me get to that in a second. With the benefit of time having elapsed and a wider sense of the story having emerged, I think it’s important for commentary on this issue not to view the incident with an uncritical gaze. The wider context of the event seems to be more complicated than only the encounter with Nathan Phillips. In fact, I won’t really be discussing that aspect much. While I think the behavior of the Covington students was both rude and disrespectful, and I think the defense of the behavior is often extremely passive-aggressive ("He wasn't doing anything but smiling, what are you talking about?"), I think it's material to note that the Black Hebrew Israelites had engaged with these students prior to the event in question. The BHI called the students, and please pardon my language here, "faggots," "incest babies," "dogs," "crackers," and told them they would one day have their organs harvested. Now, that absolutely does not justify the Covington students’ behavior, but it does give a sense of context in terms of the atmosphere of the event before Phillips walked up to the students -- which is to say, very confrontational. Nevertheless, to be sure, between the Covington school kids (who are also on video prior to the event in question harassing two girls as they walked by, so their behavior is suspect in a broader context regardless) and the BHI group (who have a long history in the DC area of violent, egregious, and confrontational rhetoric of the sort they deployed here), there are no heroes.

To be sure, between the Covington school kids and the Black Hebrew Israelites, there are no heroes.

So, to the substance of my post: just as a gut feeling, I would imagine that "they're just a kid" is supplied by parents as an excuse for the poor behavior of children across race, class, and gender, although likely not equally. Some of that undoubtedly comes down to parenting, which is an important consideration here, but one which I won't be taking up directly. The problem that arises, however, is when we consider whether or not that excuse is considered exculpatory for behavior. That does have a racial component: It is indisputable that black and brown minors are tried as adults at significantly higher rates than white minors. This racialization of carcerality is also clearly reflected in the demographics of inmate populations more broadly, which skew heavily towards people of color. This is an issue of structural inequality. Which is to say, this isn't simply a problem of the judicial system, or the law enforcement arm of the state -- though these are two of the issues within the problematic structure -- but a wider societal problem with innumerable inputs and outputs ranging from media influence and coverage to legacies of oppression and their material manifestations in the form of urban planning, discriminatory behavior and policies, and economics. And, specifically, how those multiple and interrelated factors affect the treatment and regard of racialized bodies regardless of age.

It is indisputable that black and brown minors are tried as adults at significantly higher rates than white minors.

To emphasize that broader point, we might look to the legal system's treatment of minors, however the analogy isn't perfect here because we are necessarily talking about criminal acts instead of disagreeable behavior. Nevertheless, witness the case of Cory Batey, a black Vanderbilt student who was accused of raping an unconscious woman. He was convicted when he was 19 years old and sentenced to a mandatory 15-25 year sentence. Brock Turner, the white Stanford student who was accused and convicted of a similar crime, received six months and served three, a sentence so shocking that the judge was recalled by voters shortly thereafter. While there are compelling differences between the cases, none of them seem to merit the disparate legal sentences which were applied, and we see this trend repeated over and over again in broader sentencing: in comparable cases, a black man is, on average, sentenced to a 20% longer sentence than a white man. More to the substance here is that a form of the "just a kid" defense was mobilized in defense of Brock Turner by his father, who said "This is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life." This is, of course, appalling to the point of absurdity. And no such bizarre defense was attempted in Batey's case to my knowledge.

What that indicates to me is that white minors seem to be excused (or attempt to be excused) for more behavior on the basis of their youth while minors of color are more prone to be held to a higher standard -- more or less the expectations of adult behavior. This is patently unfair, not because white minors aren't held to the expectations of an adult too, but because so often brown and black youth are. And it seems to play out in the media in innumerable ways through both the characterization of what "youth" means for society as falling more in line with the experiences of a white minor vs a minor of color, and reams could be written on the subject of how we characterize “normal” youth experience and behavior. But this is also perpetuated in sometimes much more obvious ways such as the selection of photographs to represent raced youth in media coverage, all of which has received fairly robust study in both popular and academic treatment.

We should try to hold all children to the same standard which has an emphasis on the possibility for forgiveness, the need for education around the behavior, and empathy and understanding without simply absolving all responsibility.

That said, I do think that, especially for less egregious, non-criminal behavior, we should try to hold all children to the same standard which has an emphasis on the possibility for forgiveness, the need for education around the behavior, and empathy and understanding without simply absolving all responsibility. That is also likely how we should treat all humans, but the case for the particular application of this approach with youth is merited in my opinion. As a society, we don't necessarily "give a pass" to youthful behavior, however we do treat it differently, and there are compelling reasons for that. Some of them are biological: studies suggest the prefrontal lobe, which is the part of the brain that modulates and inhibits inappropriate behavior, is not fully formed until, in some cases, as late as 20 years of age. In addition to that, the brain's capacity to actualize long-term consequences is also still forming. In fact, you can draw a compelling correlation to the rise and fall of crime rates based on the size and distribution of people between the ages of 15-24; that is, the more people between those ages in a given region, the higher the rates of crime. So deviant, delinquent, inappropriate, or criminal behavior has a fairly strong correlation to youth (Elliott, Huizinga & Morse; Rowe & Tittle; Steffensmeier & Harer; Hirschi & Gottfredson; and Kanazawa & Still). Finally (but not exhaustively), as a society we understand that youth is also a time of learning, and learning requires making mistakes. We're learning behaviors, ideas, and identities. 


To wit, trying things on, taking them off, experimenting, playing with rules, and questioning fundamental principles are all natural and critical parts of youth. As such, in our more reasonable moments, society grants tremendous leniency and empathy for minors for these general reasons. And I think that is good and just. If we punish, vilify, and hold accountable youthful behaviors as we would an adult, we inhibit the free play and experimentation of youth, and we also hold them to an impossible standard. Which is to say, we apply societal disciplinary and punishment forces which have long-lasting consequences to those most vulnerable to those effects. Now, obviously what I'm arguing here is that this should be the universal standard, so the problem arises when some youth, based on racial ideology, are not seen through this lens but are instead considered pre-criminal or, in many cases, adults by virtue of their race. The trend I mentioned earlier regarding minors of color being tried as adults more frequently than white minors is obviously a disturbing and dramatically unjust application of the above sentiment. 

Nevertheless, I don't think it makes the world a more just or equitable place to match vindictiveness with vindictiveness. While it may have the feel of justice, what it ends up doing is applying a shitty standard to a larger group of people. We ought to be thinking about how we can create structural change that inhibits this sort of behavior in the first place, and this seems to be a matter of education and parenting (but I repeat myself), and we should endeavor to create a world where all youth, regardless of color, are in a space of empathy, understanding, and, when appropriate and possible, absolution for poor decisions. In the same way that the answer to the inequitable carceral state isn't to arrest more people, I don't think the answer to the lack of mercy for minors of color is to be less merciful to all minors.

Grant the Covington kids some leniency based on their youth as you would any young person who made poor choices, but don’t selectively and inequitably apply this empathetic and gentle stance only with those youth who come to us with a privileged complexion. 

So, in the final analysis, I think that treating the Covington kids’ behavior as rude and disrespectful is reasonable, and as I mentioned at the outset, this behavior was occurring prior to the event in question, but I don't think they should be vilified. I think they should be educated and, if the parties affected are able and willing, forgiven. To that end, and in this particular case, Phillips has already expressed that he has “forgiveness in his heart for those students,” which is deeply touching, admirable, and in line with what I am arguing here. So, indeed, they are "just kids," and I think it’s incredible important that everyone remember this sentiment the next time it is black or brown kids in the media crosshair. Calling attention to the fact that there is a desire by some people to consider the actions of the Covington kids in the permissive light of youth speaks with the voice of our better angels, but make no mistake: what also absolutely must be highlighted and emphasized is, while they should be given more leniency in the public eye because they are young, this is not always the universal application of this social sentiment, and the racial disparity between how we treat youthful behavior is pernicious and broadly manifested, and the media is culpable in perpetuating this unequal treatment but can also be a valuable tool in correcting it. Please, grant the Covington kids some leniency based on their youth just as you would any other kids who made poor choices, but don't selectively and inequitably apply this gentle understanding only to those youth who come to us with a privileged complexion. 

Losing the Voices of the Lost

Annita Lucchessi, a doctoral student at University of Lethbridge, has begun work compiling a database of Native women that have gone missing. 

It is a profoundly sad statistical reality that indigenous women report much higher rates of  sexual violence during their lives from the US Department of Justice -- a rate of 1 in 3 indigenous women versus 1 in 6, and both of those numbers are considered fairly low-ball figures by other organizations. The statistics regarding sexual violence against women are staggering at any degree. However, as the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence reports:

Of women who are raped in their lifetime: 17.9% are Caucasian, 11.9% are Latina, 18.8% are African-American, 34.1% are American Indian or Alaskan Native, and 6.8% are Asian or Pacific Islander. 24.4% are mixed race.
— https://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/woc-stats/

The difference in degree is staggering. Some of my work involves recovering the languages of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish that are facing the threat of extinction; not necessarily extinction in a linguistic archival sense, but in the mobilized, regular use of the language which characterizes living language as such. This issue of language loss is one that deserves its own post, coming in the near future, but as I sat today thinking about the idea of what it means to lose our indigenous voices, I was re-reading and thinking about these stories and statistics regarding a more literal loss of voice, one which seems to intersect in so many ways with the complex factors which have led to the loss of indigenous languages. I was thinking about the ways the disappearance and violence committed against Native women seems to highlight some sort of racial/ethnic preference. About the effect of the unique status of tribal-national spaces in the form of the reservation system in the USA as a ripe and easily abused situation for "rape tourism." Of the incidence of intimate-partner violence for Native women both on- and off-reservation, and, of course, the history of colonialism and attempted genocide; the rates of drug and alcohol abuse; the poverty within Native communities. And on, and on. Ever tearfully on.

Part of what I find so tragic about these numbers is that it shows a clear and continued targeting of Native women for various forms of violence, and the trend has a long history. Lucchessi's database is the first of its kind to truly attempt to catalog indigenous women whom have gone missing on a broader, unified scale and put them into a single database. This has been a slow and tedious effort involving tirelessly submitting public records requests. As the NPR story also emphasizes, Lucchessi has documented more than 2,000 cases so far -- most of which are from the last 20 years. And, as Lucchessi notes:

“And really, it’s not just data,” she says. “That’s someone’s relative that’s collecting dust somewhere and no one is being held accountable to remember or honor the violence that was perpetrated against her.”
— https://www.npr.org/2018/07/21/627567789/doctoral-student-compiles-database-of-indigenous-women-who-ve-gone-missing

It should go without saying that this sort of work is incredibly valuable, and yet I would still emphasize that this should be considered part of the larger project of amplification and presencing of the lived experiences of Tribal nations and people because, even with figures so staggering, this sort of violence seems to often fly under the radar. Which is to say, it doesn't actually go without saying. It is often simply not said or heard. Lucchessi's work is about the recovery of voices lost, and it needs to be amplified and talked about. In a moment when the appallingly wide-spread acts of violence and sexual aggression against women are finally being shown the light of day, there should be enough allies and supporters that can help signal boost the plight of indigenous women in the Americas. There are similar difficulties in that there is no single cause to the problem(s), and, as a result, no easy answer. 

It seems to me that the problem is extremely complicated, difficult, and fraught with multiple poles of cause and effect, but the best way to approach these sorts of complexities is to seek out friends, allies, and those with an open mind who are willing to talk about it, and begin a serious and critical conversation about how we got here and how we can make it better going forward.

This issue demands much more time, space, and attention than this post has given it, but it is, without a doubt, the least we can do for the missing or damaged voices of our mothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters. We must keep starting (or re-starting) the flames of the conversation and continue to stoke those flames until justice, resolution, and change can occur. 

The ALSC Laura Ingalls Wilder Award Name Change

The Association for Library Service to Children (part of the American Library Association per the article) has decided to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from their award, a bronze medal, which recognizes "an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." While it hasn't been quite as widespread and, for lack of a better word, "loud" in the cultural conversations (especially as seen on social media and the like) as many recent cultural debates, it has seemed to mobilize similar sentiment to those around the removal of confederate statues last year.  And, as you might guess, the battle lines have been pre-drawn and much of the rhetoric seemingly pre-articulated as is often the case in "hot-button issues" in the contemporary moment. 


I don't want to rehash some of the broader, haymaker-style swings of the more animated members of the debate, but I would like to clarify a few misunderstandings that I've seen on Facebook and Twitter over the last few days. To begin with, as far as I know, the discussion about "revision" in this article and elsewhere is to the literary canon, not to the works themselves as many have complained about. This is not an example of attempting to clean up Twain's classic, Huckleberry Finn, though the WashPo article does note that in the 1950s they tried to revise an instance, in the very first chapter of Little House on the Prairie no less, where the book outright declines to include Tribal peoples/nations as "people" full stop. Even the Harper's editorial staff seemed astounded at their own oversight. And, because this editorial revision has been mentioned in the discussion around this award, there has been a conflation with Harper's editorial staff attempting to clean that section up in 1952, and the ongoing attempt to revise and rethink the literary canon as a whole—and even what the literary canon means in our contemporary moment.

Certainly, as I saw it described by a fan of Wilder's work in a well-meaning but somewhat misguided post on Facebook, no one is trying to "eliminate" Wilder's work from history, and no one is saying you cannot, or even should not, read her work to yourself or others. In fact, moments like this seem to emphasize the importance of critical reading which includes the historical context of her novels which differs from our own in fairly profound ways, not the least of which is the shift in popular American attitudes about blackface and the sub-humanity of Native people. That point is made and emphasized in the closing paragraphs of the article through the commentary from Caroline Fraser, a Wilder scholar, who seems to stop just short of saying the name of the ALSC award should not, in fact, be changed in an article for WashPo from earlier this year, but does advocate compellingly for the value in a continuing critical approach to Wilder's texts. 

The NBC television version of  Little House on the Prairie    

The NBC television version of Little House on the Prairie


To return to the main point of the initial WashPo article, it's worth highlighting that it's discussing the removal of her name from a literary award; no one should erase the material reality of the negative side of American history, and certainly removing someone's name from an award differs dramatically from trying to erase their work. The erasure of the reality of slavery, genocide, and the cultural attitudes which worked to facilitate those acts would be a tremendous error. Nevertheless, the sentiment behind the removal of her name from the award reflects a desire to avoid naming contemporary awards after people who perpetuated some of those cultural attitudes. To wit, there isn't a D. W. Griffith Award anymore -- the Director's Guild of America went through this same conversation and evolution nearly 20 years ago. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't think Griffith is part of the foundation of modern cinema, but you'd find it equally difficult to find someone who thinks we should be giving people awards named after a KKK propagandist.

To be clear, I don't put Wilder's work in the same category as Griffith's, and I think there is a more fundamental and important conversation that needs to be had about how we interact with artists whom do things in their lives or in their art which is morally, ethically, or politically problematic. It is certainly something I think about a lot, so I may return to this topic in a future post, but for now some clarification on thoughts on the debate will have to suffice. Wilder is certainly outside of my area of interest and experience, but it's still an important space in the work of the American cultural imaginary, and as such demands careful attention, especially in works like this which are targeted at younger children. If we don't take pains to historicize, contextualize, and discuss the racist attitudes and assumptions in works even as loved as Wilder's, maybe especially as loved as Wilder's, we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate "good-hearted racism" to our children. And that, to my mind, is one of the more pernicious and also one of the easier to correct errors in the struggle over racial/ethnic representation. And "pernicious and easy-to-fix" are great words to hear in concert.