The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)
Select Page

In the introduction to her book, Kristin Henning writes: “We live in a society that is uniquely afraid of Black children.” (P. xv.) The Rage of Innocence shows just what that means for Black children – and the rest of us.

In bleak chapters, Henning examines the criminalization of Black youth. A chapter contrasting the experiences of white and Black American adolescents sets the table. The next three chapters examine how “play,” clothing and hip-hop, and sexuality transform into markers of crime. A set of chapters examining policing-based activities follows, while the penultimate two chapters explore the “dehumanization” of Black children and Black families. Henning shows how the police and school “resource officers” treat the normal behaviors of childhood, when exhibited by Black children, as illegal activities while the same behaviors of white children are unnoticed – or rewarded. She starts almost every chapter with the story of a particular child or youth, and then embeds those stories in social science data and legal analysis that back up and illustrate her point.

Growing up Black, she shows, means the constant and “excessive intrusion” by the police (xvii) into the lives of Black youth, and the criminalization even of giggling: “four twelve-year old Black and Latina girls were strip-searched” at their middle school for laughing, because they were seen as “’hyper’ and ‘giddy.’” (P. 32.)

Or consider hoodies, which were designed to help high school athletes stay warm. When white high school girls wear them to yoga, they are unremarkable. By contrast: “A Black boy in a hoodie is viewed as a threat and a menace. His clothing causes shopkeepers to call 911.” (P. 51.)

While juvenile justice is a distinct discipline, it straddles family law as well as criminal law. As Henning shows, the criminal apparatus stands in for, or overlaps with, the parental function of shaping children’s lives and instilling certain values; the book provides perspective on how children come of age in in a setting outside of their families or the abuse and neglect system, in the third system of incarceration. Those of us in the family law sphere may include a unit on juvenile justice in a child, parent, and state course, or discuss it in the basic family law course. Henning’s book provides the tools to include more material in our courses on how juvenile justice intersects with the family, and the book shows the critical importance of doing so.

The chapter on Black families is titled “Things Fall Apart,” and looks at how incarceration affects not just the targeted children but other family members. The chapter starts with stories of Black youth who have died, whether at the hands of the police (Michael Brown), or self-appointed vigilante (Trayvon Martin), or suicide. Henning traces how parents are told that their children have been arrested – “the calls are usually perfunctory” (P. 274) – what it feels like to see a child shackled, and the arbitrariness of bail-setting. Once children are incarcerated, visitation can be difficult: it’s not just that the parents might work; the child might be placed in facilities far from their homes. Henning, who was a public defender in Washington, D.C. before joining the Georgetown law faculty, has represented clients who have been sent away to Florida. (P. 278.) Although youth who maintain familial relationships through visitation seem to “fare better” while they are imprisoned (such as lower incidence of “misbehavior”), the system does “little”, Henning explains, to facilitate such connections. (P. 278.)

And then there is the impact of the criminalization of Black youth on their siblings. Henning tells the story of her own brother, who was arrested for the first time when she was a teenager. (P. 283.) She notes that while there is little research on how children experience the imprisonment of a sibling, what does exist shows that children feel “considerable trauma from the complex array of feelings.” Those feelings range from worry about their sibling, sorrow about losing the companionship, and also include, potentially, “shame and embarrassment about having a sibling in the ‘system.’” (P. 287.)

A child’s involvement with the criminal justice system might also cause a family to be evicted. The federal “One Strike” housing policy essentially allows public housing authorities to evict an entire family when one member – or a guest – is involved in drug-related acts.1 She tells the story of her client, “David,” who lived with his mother and two brothers in a two-story public housing unit. His mother, who was paralyzed from the waist down, could not get to the second floor; the city’s representatives, including social workers, could. They found drug paraphernalia. Although David’s mother asked to be moved into a one-story unit so she could better supervise her sons, David and his brother were arrested, the entire family was threatened with eviction, and a child neglect investigation was opened into the situation of the youngest brother, Jerrod. When Jerrod was sent to a group home for children who were neglected, Henning writes: “Until then, David had been one of my toughest clients. Not hard. Not mean. Not angry. Just strong. But when the judge decided to remove his little brother from their home, David collapsed on the floor, crying uncontrollably.” (Pp. 293-94.) The story also has powerful resonance with Dorothy Roberts’s indictment of the child “welfare” system, expressed recently in her 2022 book, Torn Apart, and another institutional setting in which children come of age.

The Rage of Innocence is hard to read. Henning’s account is often shocking in its careful cataloguing of the ways in which a deep-seated fear and distrust of Black adolescence leads to an outsized criminalization of Black youth, with long-term negative psychological, social and economic effects for the individuals, families, and communities involved. The contrast with the treatment of white youth shows why there is a disproportionate number of Black youth represented in the juvenile justice system: according to the Department of Justice, in 2019, the detention rate for non-Hispanic black juveniles was 139/100,000, compared to 41 for Hispanics and 22 for non-Hispanic whites. But that contrast also shows that Black youth do not need to be treated in this way.

Somehow, at the end of the book, Henning offers hope. She celebrates the resilience of youth. She offers a series of potential reforms that can improve that resilience. For example, she emphasizes supportive family relationships and the need to ensure that each child has at least one supportive “’irrationally caring adult’” in their lives – if not a network of such strong relationships. (Pp. 289-91.) She notes that parents can promote their children’s self-esteem. Building resilience also includes helping “youth develop a strong racial identity” (P. 304), which can, in turn, help them navigate adverse experiences and create achievement goals.

In advocating for “police-free schools,” she calls for better mental health services, with professionals who are trained in antibias techniques; she sees a role for the police in responding to violence, just not in the daily surveillance of schoolchildren. (Pp. 313-14.) She also suggests providing police training that teaches officers about adolescent brain development, that gives police a range of tools to respond to typical adolescent behavior, that informs them of juveniles’ legal rights, and that makes de¬-escalation a priority. (Pp. 318-320.) And she argues for law reform, such as through requiring “racial impact statements” that show how different races will be affected by any particular law. (P. 330.)

Ultimately, she counsels us to let children be children.

Download PDF
  1. See Ann Cammett, Confronting Race and Collateral Consequences in Public Housing, 39 Seattle U. L. Rev. 1123, 1140-44 (2016).
Cite as: Naomi R. Cahn, Let Kids be Kids, JOTWELL (June 28, 2022) (reviewing Kristin Henning, The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth (2021)),