"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.