A War on Black Children?

— The Editors

TWO MONSTROUS EVENTS have opened a window on a daily reality: In the name of safe streets and schools, an undeclared war has been opened on a generation of African-American children. In affluent suburban Oakland County, Michigan, a nearly all-white jury convicted a 13-year-old youth of second-degree murder, tried as an adult in a shooting that occurred when he was 11 years of age. In Decatur, Illinois, seven Black students were expelled from high school by a nearly all-white school board, against the opposition of the only Black member, for a brawl in the stands at a football game.

There will be those who object to characterizing these acts as racial. After all, the victim of the Michigan shooting, Ronnie Greene, 18, was also Black. And as Jesse Jackson wrote of the Decatur expulsions:

“This isn’t simply about race. It’s about fairness. It’s about how we treat our young. When we protested in Decatur, white parents whose children had also been summarily expelled for a mistake joined us.” (Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1999)

Quite right. It is not simply about race. Indeed very few events (perhaps aside from outright neo-nazi killings) are simply about race; and the victims of a brutal orgy of discipline in the schools, the courts and the prisons won’t be only people of color. But it is about race, centrally, because the criminalizing of young people begins with manufacturing the image of menacing, out-of-control, armed-and-dangerous youth who are not responsible to society, not respectful of any authority, and not white. A society that is scared to death of itself requires a villain, and is unlikely to look to the heart of its own dominant institutions to find one.

Nathaniel Abraham, by all accounts, is at best on the borderline of mental competence and severely disturbed—for which he would no doubt have received proper medical attention if he belonged to a wealthy family. Gloria Abraham, Nathaniel’s mother, had asked police and juvenile courts for assistance when Nathaniel began getting into trouble at the age of 8, and school officials had determined that he had emotional problems, yet he received no counseling—which the Oakland County prosecutor now calls “unfortunate.” (New York Times, November 23, 1999)

On October 29, 1997, he was shooting a 30-year-old rifle with the stock missing when, according to ballistic evidence, a bullet that had probably ricocheted off a tree accidentally killed a young man leaving a convenience store nearly 100 yards away.

Under a law promulgated by the collection of political sociopaths and thugs known as the Michigan State Legislature, the prosector may request permission to try any youth as an adult, with no lower age limit. Arrested at age 11, Nathaniel was held in custody for two years until trial and brought into court shackled.

Further, using what has become standard prosecutorial practice, the district attorney brought a charge of first-degree, i.e. pre-meditated murder, for which there was no evidence whatsoever, enabling the jury (seven white women, four white men, one elderly Black man) after four days of deliberation to split the difference with a second-degree murder conviction. (In a bizarre twist, suggesting some kind of compromise verdict, Abraham was actually acquitted of felony firearms possession during the murder.)

Thus, instead of automatic life without parole, Abraham may have a chance to have his life sentence reviewed at age 19 or 21, when he would be due to be transferred from juvenile to adult prison. By that time, of course, the state may have succeeded in turning him from a frightened child barely aware of his surroundings to a real-life hardened killer.

This is the kind of “juvenile justice” that we are accustomed to consign to the horrors of past centuries, like the hanging of child pickpockets in a Dickens novel, or to some hideous modern-day dictatorship. Indeed, such practices might appear in a U.S. State Department annual report on human rights abuses-at least, if they were committed by a regime that happened to be on the yearly list of official “enemies of freedom” (say, Iraq or Serbia) rather than “friendly partners.”

But the atrocity of this trial is not in a different time or place-it is here, and now. How it could conceivably happen can perhaps be better understood if we look at the Decatur school incident, although the specific circumstances are obviously altogether different.

Collective Columbine Terror

If anything is obvious, it is the fact that the draconian expulsion of students over a mundane fistfight where there was no gang involvement, where no one was armed, nobody was robbed, nobody was seriously hurt, could only happen in a climate of national hysteria. A couple of weeks suspension, mandatory counseling and a ban on attending future games, sure—but expulsion? And not only expulsion, but (until Jesse Jackson’s high-profile intervention) a two-year expulsion without even provision for alternative education??

The point here is not that the white majority on the Decatur School Board are some kind of sheet-wearing Klansmen. Quite the contrary, they are low-level roleplayers in a grotesque morality play scripted by collective terror over Columbine. And there is plenty to be terrified about: As far as we are aware, late twentieth-century America is the only society in history where children kill other children in school. Not even in places ripped apart by ethnic slaughter or civil war—not in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda or for that matter, Nazi Germany—have students brought guns to school to kill other kids (or more frequently, to protect themselves from threats).

The authorities’ response, because they have no other answer to offer, is something called “zero tolerance.” To be sure, there can be no tolerance for guns in school. But “zero tolerance” meaning expulsion from school for any kind of fighting is literally mindless discipline of a kind that inevitably, given the racism that pervades this society, will fall first and hardest on people of color and secondly on the poor and working-class people of all colors.

It is a striking fact of all the school massacres-three to four every year over the past half-decade-that the perpetrators have always been white and, for the most part, comfortably middle-class from “traditional” two-parent backgrounds. (Given a different set of societal prejudices, some ambitious sociologist might be making an academic and political reputation writing idiotic and highly influential works on the social pathology of the white heterosexual family.)

In most cases, the killings actually have had nothing to do with race—Columbine being an exception, where nazism had some influence on the two murderers’ fantasy life. In some cases it was about teen-age boys’ rage over relationships, at Columbine athletes were targeted. If there is any common denominator to the shootings in the schools, it would seem to be adolescent males who have not yet learned anything about the value of human life, their own included, but who have internalized at an early age the view that their fragile malehood is under constant threat.

The Decatur incident, in fact, had nothing in common with the horror of school shootings. It was a routine case of teenage testosterone overflow. Was there ever a time when such fights didn’t happen (and what is high school football anyway, if not an officially approved communal celebration of ritualized violence)? How could it be that an institutional bureaucracy like the school board has no sane procedures to respond to such predictable episodes?

As Jesse Jackson reported:

“The (Decatur school) board president said that the school had a zero-tolerance policy. We asked to see the policy so we could understand it. She couldn’t produce a copy. We asked her what it meant. Does it mean if two third-graders get in a fistfight that they are expelled for two years? She said she wasn’t really clear. Nor, of course, were parents or students.”

What is, tragically, “really clear” is that the board’s actions in expelling the seven students were initially an amalgam of panic and grandstanding and now, having been publicly challenged, are compounded by bureaucratic stonewalling—and by the further obscenity of felony charges against several of the students.

Again, issues of race and class are inescapable here. White middle-class kids might be punished for fighting—in some cases, perhaps, even too harshly—but not thrown onto the street with no second chance, and not threatened with prison for refusing to accept their fate. That happens routinely to Black, Latino and poor youth. In Decatur, at least, the facts have been opened to public inspection and the board will have to account for itself in the courts and the media. But what about all the cases of arbitrary, excessive use of disciplinary power that fall below the radar screen of public attention?

The trial of Nathaniel Abraham and the Decatur expulsions are, in fact, indicators of what might be called a low-intensity war on children, with a generation of African-American young people most exposed in the front line. To the list of official post-Communist enemies—terrorism, drugs, illegal immigrants, welfare recipients, the theory of evolution—society seems to have added its own youth.

In place of standard twentieth-century liberal social science and policy—which with all their defects recognized that social conditions had something to do with behavior—we now have de facto a doctrine of absolute individual responsibility and extreme punishment. Cutting social welfare to the bone, testing everyone on public assistance for drugs, arresting the homeless on the street, incarcerating younger and younger kids, turning prisons into overcrowded hellholes where “rehabilitation” is hardly even attempted—all this is part of the reality of glorious, prosperous America today.

Unlike what might have occurred a century ago, or even a few decades ago in the Jim Crow South, this war on the population is not waged under the overt banner of white “civilized values” and supremacy. It is not even necessarily racist in its primary intent. But what may be, in some sense, even worse: Unable to confront the actual causes of its violence and alienation, a decaying capitalist society is turning minority communities and their children into that favorite euphemism of war, “collateral damage.”

ATC 84, January–February 2000