The American Tradition of Innocence Denied

Innocence: freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil; freedom from guile or cunning; lack of worldly experience or sophistication

We often speak of the innocence of children. We consider them to be unaware of the evils of our world. Their brains are growing quickly in sheer size but also in connective pathways. Childhood follows us into adulthood as we realize many of our mannerisms, ideas, and ideologies are formed while we are still growing. We imagine children as vessels to be filled, hopefully with happy memories of carefree days and footloose freedom.

If there is one thing that all children should have is the inalienable right to belong to a family, where adults love and protect them and children can be innocent. Where they can be children.

But we do not allow innocence for all children equally. As per usual, the good things about living are often only obtainable for whites. Google “innocence” images, and almost all of the first 20 photos are white children. White children who we fear have lost their innocence are grieved for; White children abducted are given wall-to-wall coverage of their disappearance, causing a national anxiety about their innocence. On the other side, news media likewise scour the earth to find innocence information about white teens who commit mass murder. They interview neighbors who recount tales of kindness and respect and lament that the parents of the killer have also now “lost a child.”

Black and brown children killed or removed from their families are rarely allowed to be innocent, even when they are clear victims. We need only remember the violent death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, and how the New York Times focused on how 18-year-old Michael was “no angel.” Our children attend schools where their guilt is predestined; they are treated like inmates with bars on the windows, metal detectors at the doors, and officers “patrolling” the hallways. School “resource” officers violently arrest black and brown children for doing the things that kids do.

Our President has recently claimed that unaccompanied migrant children, overwhelming brown, children already suffering from separation from their parents, are “not innocent.”  U.S. policy allows migrant children who arrived with their parents to sleep on a dirty floor, fenced in like animals. Brown children are being separated from their parents for the crime of fleeing violence, even though their family is the place in which they are most identified as being a child. Our government has literally “lost” almost 1,500 children that were in their care. Many of them may be being trafficked:

An AP investigation found in 2016 that more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay. At the time, many adult sponsors didn’t undergo thorough background checks, government officials rarely visited homes and in some cases had no idea that sponsors had taken in several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking.

Of course, as many, many, many, people on social media have pointed out, this habit of treating black and brown children as less than innocent is far from being an American aberration; it is an American tradition. During slavery, children were ripped from their mothers to toil in fields like adults and sold as commodities on an open market. During Jim Crow, young black boys were arrested and placed in chain gangs (for a beautiful historical fiction account, read this). Native families — and nations — were destroyed by a government policy of removing Native children from their homes and tribes and placing them in boarding homes where they were unable to retain their culture, including their language. In the 1970s, the National Association of Black Social Workers argued that removing black children from their families and placing them in white foster homes was too a form of cultural genocide.

Destroying families by denying childhood innocence has been a key part of the enduring power of white supremacy. White supremacy relies on the reproduction of the state-enforced inability of non-white people to behave as people. It denies to non-whites the most foundational experience of personhood: to birth and raise their children in community, and to allow children to be children.

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