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Social Pressures and Prejudices Shape Perceptions of Who is a Child

Roundup
tags: racism, criminal justice



Bill Bush is a professor of history at Texas A&M University-San Antonio and author of Who Gets a Childhood?: Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century Texas.

Erin Mysogland researches the policing of migrant youth and works at Pace University. 

On Jan. 6, 2021, Leonard Pearson “Pearce” Ridge IV, a 19-year-old from Bucks County, Pa., spent nearly 40 minutes in the U.S. Capitol, where he vandalized the offices of Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Department of Justice charged Ridge, who is White, for his participation in the attack. During Ridge’s trial, his attorney cited studies suggesting the brain may not be developed until people reach their mid-20s and stated that Ridge “was extremely young” on Jan. 6. The judge in the case, who stated that “teenage bravado” may have played a role in Ridge’s actions, sentenced Ridge to 14 days in jail, one year of probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.

Three months after the insurrection at the Capitol, a Florida judge ruled that Javarick Henderson Jr., a Black child accused of killing his grandmother at the age of 13, will be tried in an adult court. Henderson, who is housed in a juvenile jail, is charged with first-degree murder, which can carry a sentence of life in prison. Henderson is among an estimated 250,000 youths each year who are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults — with young people of color overrepresented in this group.

The cases of Ridge and Henderson demonstrate how other identities, such as race, class and gender, can shape perceptions of age. As a result, a young person’s actual age is sometimes in conflict with how adults, and the larger society, perceive and treat them. While Ridge, at 19, is legally an adult, the deeply entrenched connections between Whiteness, childhood and innocence allowed his attorney to garner sympathy from the judge. On the other hand, in its decision to proceed with an adult trial for Henderson, the Florida legal system drew on a long history of denying Black children the protections granted to White children, which, since the Progressive Era, has included access to the juvenile justice system.

While Western governments have long granted rights and assigned legal protections according to the supposedly objective criteria of chronological age, in practice, assessing age has been far more subjective — and the determination has always privileged some children while discriminating against others. Adult authorities often have used a functional age, filtered through categories of race, class, gender or ability, to make decisions about children and youths that are at odds with their chronological age — what scholars call a “double age.”

An example of how this played out was “age grading.” In the early 19th century, a child’s age took on new importance. In Northern cities, emerging public schools and orphanages began recording age as a measure of maturity or capacity; meanwhile, on Southern plantations and at slave markets, enslavers equated age with property value. Lacking information about children’s birth dates, adult authorities frequently assigned ages to children based on whether they looked or behaved according to a particular chronological age. Assigning an age to a child was important as Americans increasingly associated younger childhood with innocence and protection.

For example, in the late 19th century, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union led a national campaign to raise the age of consent, a history chronicled in a now-classic study. In 1885, most state laws had set the age of consent at a shockingly low 10 years old. (In Delaware, it was 7 years old.) By 1920, all but one state had raised it to 16. Age grading took shape across American society and became normative by the end of the 19th century.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post

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