As shocking and aberrant as this saga might seem — one doctor who surveyed conditions at a shelter for migrant children insisted that “America is better than this” — it fits within the long American tradition of treating children differently based on their race. White children are considered innocent, in need of protection, while children of color are cast as inhuman or villainous, deserving punishment and rough treatment. Until we recognize and eliminate this unequal paradigm, we’ll continue to witness the horrifying mistreatment of nonwhite children.
The vulnerability and innocence of white children has been a cultural staple since the 19th century. Vulnerable white children played a starring role in popular (and embellished) Indian captivity narratives, which vilified Native Americans while rendering their captives virtuous. As the 19th century progressed, captivity narratives remained popular, but changed to focus on stories about ransom kidnappings, often featuring photogenic white children such as 4-year-old Charley Ross in sensational, serialized crime stories.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the image of cherubic children played a central role in the emerging consumer economy. Pictures of innocent white children became a vehicle for selling soap and other products. At the same time, Progressive reformers employed (white) childhood innocence and “pricelessness” to try to build popular support for labor reforms, including restrictions on child labor. Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and other Progressives snapped and circulated photographs of white children toiling in dingy factories, peddling newspapers and tilling the soil beneath the summer sun. Efforts to renegotiate young Americans’ relationship with the labor market ultimately found formal recognition in the New Deal era, when the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act imposed long-term restrictions on child labor.
But even as these protections were being enacted to safeguard white children, children of color were not only excluded but treated as societal menaces. In both culture and policy, African American children especially were deemed inhuman, impervious to pain and devoid of human emotion. White Americans employed racist caricatures to justify cruel and paternalistic treatment of people of color, both domestically and abroad. Cartoonish depictions of Cubans and Filipinos — portrayed as hyperracialized, incorrigible children — served to legitimate American empire as a “civilizing” project at the turn of the century.
At the same time, black youth faced rampant violence and discrimination in the Jim Crow South. Through World War II, young black Southerners frequently became ensnared in a convict-lease system that historian Douglas Blackmon trenchantly called “slavery by another name.”
As young African Americans and their families migrated to the urban centers of the industrial Midwest and Northeast between 1910 and 1970, they encountered similar prejudice and dehumanization. In the first juvenile court, established in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, “innocent” white youth were treated with kid gloves, while their black peers faced intense punishment for the same crimes. This practice remained common for decades, with young men of color most often bearing the burden of punitive criminal justice policies.
Native American children were also historically excluded from visions of childhood innocence. White “reformers” sought to destroy what was believed to be less enlightened Indian culture by taking indigenous youth from their communities and “assimilating” them into white civil society. Not just a relic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the impulse to “rescue” native youth from their plight proceeded throughout the 20th century and, indeed, into the 21st.
Minority communities did not accept this subjugation of their children without a fight. The African American freedom struggle set out to make childhood a “racially inclusive category,” highlighting the lack of empathy that characterized the treatment of nonwhite children. Nowhere was this double standard clearer than the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till. Till was murdered after allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman, suggesting that his attackers viewed the 14-year-old boy as a sexual menace, not an impish child as they would a white teenager. His mother, Mamie, forced Americans to confront this twisted understanding by choosing an open casket at his funeral, so observers could “see what they did to my baby.”
Although some whites supported this call for racial and economic justice at midcentury, too often these efforts floundered amid anxiety over threats to “traditional” white families (and the children at their heart).
During the 1970s and 1980s, fears about dangers posed to innocent white children by drugs and crime led to policies that ravaged the lives of young people of color. In response to teenage drug use, officials funneled public health resources toward middle-class white suburban youth, while adopting a militarized approach in minority neighborhoods to root out the black and brown drug “pushers” who were purportedly poisoning suburban white kids. African American and Latino youth confronted heightened surveillance, abuse and incarceration as part of the interwoven wars on crime and drugs.
The criminalization of black children coincided with new policies such as welfare “reform” that proved especially harmful to children of color and their families. In the 1990s, first lady Hillary Clinton even demonized youth of color as “superpredators.”
Unsurprisingly, then, young people of color are overrepresented in the carceral state. African American juveniles, in particular, are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.
The awful images from the border are simply the latest chapter in this centuries-long story: Americans go to great lengths to protect young white citizens from “dangers” that are, in fact, not pervasive at all. Often, these threats are perceived to come from sinister minorities, thereby justifying policies and practices that further subjugate historically marginalized people. Today, it’s rhetorical tropes such as “national security” and “enforcing the law” spurring these racist policies. Simultaneously, we act as though widespread mistreatment of minority youth is somehow natural, and turn a blind eye toward it.
To end the tragedy now unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border, white Americans must think more broadly, questioning the uses and abuses of white childhood innocence — and the white supremacy it bolsters.