The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Race, class and gender shape how we see age and childhood

Assessing age — and protecting children — has always been subjective

A mural dedicated to George Floyd, left, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery in Tampa. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
7 min

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.

In the early 20th century, psychiatrists invented the now-discredited notion of “mental age” to distinguish so-called “feebleminded” children from their “normal” peers. As a result, many children in schools and mental hospitals found themselves assigned a lower “mental age” than their chronological age. California’s institutions routinely assigned lower “mental ages” to ethnic Mexican children and adolescents on the basis of biased intelligence and psychological tests. This tactic allowed the state to exert greater power over individuals deemed younger than they actually were, often with tragic results — such as forced sterilization operations that disproportionately targeted women and girls of color. In California, for example, which carried out a third of all of the nation’s sterilizations between 1910 and 1960, eugenics leaders pioneered the use of sterilization in juvenile reform schools and mental hospitals, disproportionately targeting ethnic Mexican children and adolescents.

Criminal proceedings also understood the concept of “double age” through the lens of race. In some of the earliest criminal cases brought against Black children in 19th-century America, pseudoscientific claims that Black children matured faster than White children provided the basis for a legal strategy to charge adolescents with adult crimes and impose graver punishments.

The development of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems at the turn of the 20th century reinforced this pernicious form of double age. Progressive “child savers” invented the juvenile court, juvenile probation, supervised recreation and child guidance clinics to protect the working-class children of millions of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. But their vision of protected childhood did not include Black or ethnic Mexican children, shutting them out of programs intended to prevent delinquency, shelter children from abuse and neglect, and treat them for mental and emotional trauma. The result was greater and earlier exposure than their White peers to adult sanctions and adult consequences.

Treating Black children as adults while providing extended protections to White children helped reinforce the idea that Whiteness and childhood were linked. During the 1950s, the “teenager” emerged as an archetype for adolescent rebellion, exploration and age-specific culture, but the word, as used in popular media and by policymakers, almost always evoked White, middle-class young people in the new suburbs. Meanwhile, the nation’s juvenile and criminal justice systems imprisoned a growing number of Black and Latino young people, often for nonviolent offenses. In other words, by the 1960s and ’70s, the different treatment that age evoked based on a young person’s race was pervasive.

Since “double age” was so pervasive, advocates for young people sometimes tried to use these notions about age to push for changes. For example, as immigration enforcement ramped up along the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1980s, advocates sometimes infantilized young immigrants, emphasizing their innocence, in an attempt to secure for children of color the protections their White peers enjoyed. While the 1997 Flores settlement is fairly well known for deciding upon protections for detained migrant children, efforts from that era to mobilize around age to end immigration policing as a whole are less well known.

San Diego’s Committee on Chicano Rights denounced the detention of Mexican migrant “babies” at a federal adult prison as a way to mobilize the Mexican American community toward abolishing immigration policing. As a result, some young migrants in detention were moved to foster homes. However, officials excluded some teenage migrants from these foster homes, instead continuing to detain them in adult facilities. Additionally, despite the Flores settlement agreement being implemented years later, the United States continues to detain migrant children and separate them from their families.

Mobilizing around a vision of childhood innocence may seem logical; however, this strategy rarely transforms conditions for youths of color when a discriminatory form of “double age” shapes policy.

This history informs our understanding of the Ridge and Henderson cases. A 19-year-old White man like Ridge can be a legal adult but viewed as “extremely young” for the same reason that a Black child like the 13-year-old Henderson can be charged as an adult: age, and how it functions as a system of power like race and gender. If we want to see children as children, and make judgments about their needs and their agency, we must do so in a way that challenges, rather than reaffirms, the systems of power that have created an unequal concept of childhood throughout our history.