The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth

Image of The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth
Release Date: 
September 28, 2021
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The Rage of Innocence is an important and timely book—an intelligent, compassionate, and indispensable argument on behalf of Black children.”

After 25 years as a defense attorney in Washington, D.C.’s juvenile courts, Kristin Henning still feels “shock and outrage” about the way we treat Black children. “We are afraid of Black children,” she writes. “We have a deep-seated fear, distrust, and intolerance” of them.

“Black children are accosted all over the nation for the most ordinary adolescent activities—shopping for prom clothes, playing in the park, listening to music, buying juice from the convenience store, wearing the latest fashion trend, and protesting for their social and political rights.”

In The Rage of Innocence, Henning, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, makes clear these attitudes are shared by most whites, and that the accosting is done regularly by the police, with devastating outcomes.

Research shows Black youths are “no more dangerous or impulsive” than white adolescents. Yet this book is filled with stories that suggest how little we understand this fact.

For example, “Eric,” 13, a typical, well-adjusted child, had seen a movie involving someone with a Molotov cocktail. That looked “cool,” so he decided to make something that “looked” like that out of an empty bottle that he filled with bleach, Pine-Sol, and other household products. He didn’t research his project; he was simply being creative.

That was at home on a Saturday. By Monday, he had forgotten about the bottle, which he placed in his bookbag so it wouldn’t spill on his mother’s white carpet. That morning at school, a police officer assigned to Eric’s school discovered the “cocktail,” with its long toilet-paper wick. “Oh, that’s nothing. You can throw it away,” Eric told the policeman, and walked on to class.

“Eric was pulled out of class, questioned by the police, and arrested,” explains Henning, who represented him in juvenile court. “No one believed him when he told them he forgot the bottle was there and was not planning to blow up the school.”

Months later, after Henning shared the story at a conference in New Haven, a white woman told her, “My son did exactly what you described. He tried to make a Molotov cocktail and took it to school.”

What happened? Henning wondered.

“They rearranged his class schedule so he could take a chemistry course,” the woman replied.

There’s a reason why most whites are “afraid” of Black children, writes the author. “Our culture is saturated with racial stereotypes that become so hardwired in our brains that we don’t realize they are there.”

Based on the experiences of Black children and a trove of studies and data, her powerful book details the many ways in which Black adolescents frighten. Their fashions (hoodies, sagging pants), their music (hip-hop), their hairstyles—all seem threatening. “When people see a Black person on the street, they think about crime,” she writes.

As in Eric’s case, Black adolescents are “treated like criminals” for just engaging in that “prolonged period of self-discovery from age ten to nineteen” called adolescence. It is a time of experimentation and poor decisions for all youths.

Drawing on recent research into the adolescent brain, Henning describes the teen years as a time of “impulsivity and recklessness.” During puberty, changes in the brain make us “more easily aroused by our emotions and more likely to become angry or upset at a time when we don’t have the capacity to fully regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions.”

In eye-opening chapters, she explains how these changes in the brain affect adolescents in all aspects of their lives, from activity in gangs to their encounters with police. She also traces the traumatic effects on Black youths of “viral videos” of police killings.

Her final pages focus on her hope in the “persistence and resilience” of Black youth in the face of demonizing stereotypes. She offers many strategies to help such youths thrive and succeed in the face of “the bad habits, wrong thinking, and misguided policies and practices” that hurt them.

The Rage of Innocence is an important and timely book—an intelligent, compassionate, and indispensable argument on behalf of Black children.