The Rage of Innocence by Kristin Henning
How America Criminalizes Black Youth (Book Review)
Kristin Henning writes that this is a book for “everyone who believes that Black children are children too.” I really wish this book didn’t have to be written, and it is heartbreaking to read at times, but so incredibly important to understand. In The Rage of Innocence, Henning draws on her own legal experience representing youth in court, as well as data that speak to larger trends. Henning clearly lays out how Black children are treated completely differently than white children in our criminal justice system, and the racism that infects every corner of our American society. If you haven’t already realized it, or if you need a reminder, this book highlights why we cannot stand by and be complicit in the racist double standards our society is built upon. She notes that she didn’t write this book for intellectual interest, she “wrote it for action.”
The hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite went viral on Twitter a few years ago, which highlighted self reported stories of white people committing crimes as kids but not being held accountable the way so much of Black adolescents are. In answer to why the societal difference in treatment Henning simply states: “we don’t see Black children as children.”
In Hennings experience, judges are “eager to protect whatever potential white youth have to succeed in the future,” including mental health services, drug treatment and excuses to stay out of jail. In the case of Cameron Terrell, an 18 year old white boy charged with murder, he was acquitted of all charges because the jury decided he was just “studying” Black gang culture.
Henning poses the question: would a Black child likely be acquitted of murder because they were “studying” white culture in a wealthy white neighborhood? Of course not.
Another high profile case of a white kid, Ethan Crouch, who killed 4 people while drunk driving and injured 9 others. His defense argued he had “affluenza,” which means that because he “grew up in a dysfunctional wealthy family, he never learned that actions had consequences”. Instead of 20 years of prison time, he was instead given 10 years probation without prison, and therapy. All because the judge was convinced he could be “saved” without jail time. Why does that not apply to poor kids, especially poor Black children?
Henning states this book is dedicated to “every Black child who has been criminalized for just being a child.”
F12 (TW: Police violence)
Henning dives into the “excessive intrusion of police into the lives of Black teenagers and the intolerant — sometimes deadly — reactions that police and civilians have toward Black children.”
Shakara Murphy was dragged out of her classroom seat and thrown on the ground, for using her phone during class. Especially right now, in light of recent school shootings, this is a reminder that school resource officers (SRO’s, i.e. police in schools) are fueling the school to prison pipeline, not stopping actual mass shootings. For example, Henning shares that an audit in North Carolina saw that SROs funded by state grants “did not report reductions in serious incidents like assaults, homicides, bomb threats, possession and use of alcohol and drugs, or the possession of weapons.”
Henning also notes how “disrespecting a police officer is not a crime,” and in fact we live in a country that values free speech, however, “contempt of a cop” is a phrase commonly used by judges to describe arrests.
Henning writes: “There is almost nothing Black youth can do to rid themselves of the stereotypes and assumptions that automatically brand them as dangerous. Black teenagers always ‘look’ guilty no matter what they do. And they know it.”
Because of racial bias in culture, and enforced with power and control in policing, Black adolescents may try to avoid the police, or fear them. The police then take this as “suspicious behavior” and any hesitation around them a “stutter step” and reason to watch someone. This then reinforces Black youth distrust of the police, and police being more suspicious of Black youth. Henning notes:
“Judges are vulnerable to the same biases as the rest of us… they must understand that Black children run from the police not because they are guilty and suspicious but because they are terrified and traumatized.”
Henning also writes of direct and vicarious trauma from police interactions in Black communities. Remembering Jordan Edwards, a 15 year old shot in the head and killed in 2017 by police for driving away from an average high school party. Remembering Mike Brown, Jr., an 18 year old who had just graduated high school days before he was killed by police. Remembering 12 year old Tamir Rice, killed by a police officer who was never prosecuted.
“Our culture is saturated with racial stereotypes that become so hardwired in our brains that we don’t realize they are there. It is these stereotypes that override even the most advanced police and military training.”
Cultural Double Standards
Adolescents in general take more risks than children or adults, with risky behavior peaking in their late teens. Adolescents commit “more crimes per capita than children or adults in the United States and in nearly all industrialized cultures.” Peer pressure, fears are repressed, changes in the brain with puberty that make it harder to regulate emotions, thoughts and actions.
Citing studies that although Black youth are more likely to use marijuana earlier and more often than white youth, white youth are more likely to reporting using many other drugs by 8th-12th grade. White youth also engage in more drinking alcohol in all forms than Black youth, including driving after drinking.
“All of these behaviors arise out of the same impulsive, short sighted features of adolescence that are common among youth of all races. Yet we don’t treat youth of all races the same.”
Henning shares personal anecdotes from defending youth in trial, and backs up these anecdotes with data that speaks to systemic issues and bias.
For one white passing client she defended, the judge and probation officer accepted her argument in court that the white boy on trial wouldn’t “fit in” with the others (meaning Black kids in detention). They sent the white passing boy to a youth shelter instead of the local detention facility. Unsurprisingly this argument did not work for Black children she defended.
Black youth fashion is also criminalized: hoodies, sagging pants, braids, locs, a high top fade. For example, in many cases, police officers “convinced school officials that sagging pants were an early sign that students were being lured into the gang life.” Students at schools have been subject to dress codes which have historically made Black youth fashion a violation of school policy.
Curfew and loitering laws for juveniles are also increase adolescent arrests, especially in poor communities where the only spaces to hang out are outside.
Black Youth Behind Bars
Of course if we are talking about Black youth and police interaction, we are also talking about jail and prison time that follows many police interactions for Black youth.
Accused of stealing a backpack, Kalief Browder had to wait 3 years in jail for trail, because his family didn’t have the money to pay cash bail. Two of those years were in solitary confinement, and a few years after Kalief went to trial and was ruled innocent, he died by suicide. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death after jail or prison, due to trauma. Henning also shares her own personal story of her brothers death in prison.
Taking Responsibility + Action
The last chapter is called #BlackBoyJoy and #BlackGirlMagic, and Henning lays out foundations for change in the criminalization of youth in America. Letting youth lead the movement for change is emphasized, as well as limiting and better bias and deescalation training for police who are around schools. As Henning explains, “police-free schools” don’t mean that the police are never involved, but means that there are other strategies and means of support utilized before resorting to calling police. Henning also notes:
“If police won’t change — the lawmakers have a responsibility to make them change — both by decriminalizing normal adolescent behaviors and by writing laws that set limits on what police can and cannot do with children. Police arrest children for ‘disturbing schools’ and ‘disrupting class’ because the law says they can. Police put eight-and nine-year-old Black children in handcuffs because we don’t tell them not to.”
Within the book, Henning continues to remind us of the extraordinary resilience of Black youth growing up in the society we live in. And our duty to work to attempt to change society so that Black youth do not have to continue to experience racism the way they do today. I recommend this book very much, and I am so grateful to have been able to read it and share it.
More prison/ police abolition book reviews:
Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements
Invisible No More (Book Review)
Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie
Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? (Book Review)
A collection of incarcerated journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal’s writings from the past 20 years
Chokehold- Policing Black Men (Book Review)
A Renegade Prosecutor’s Radical Thoughts on How to Disrupt the System- Paul Butler
“They Can’t Kill Us All” (Book Review)
Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery