Our Children Got Left Behind: Humanizing the Lives Behind Juvenile Arrest Statistics

Editorial by Contributing Writer Noelle Janak

This past Wednesday evening, a hundred or so Tulsans gathered to discuss disparities in juvenile arrests uncovered in the Tulsa Equality Indicators report.  The gathering was historic. Never have City Council members, concerned citizens, and city officials (including the city’s Chief of Police) gathered to have a frank conversation about why Black juveniles are more than three times as likely as white juveniles to be arrested by the Tulsa Police Department (TPD). As we all know, history has winners and losers. The City of Tulsa, and perhaps the City Council, may have won that night. However, the Black and Brown children of Tulsa were ultimately the losers on Wednesday night. 

Reduced to mere stereotypes, our children were labeled as poor, criminal, irrational, and fatherless. The Black and Brown young people of Tulsa remained nameless statistics lost in the 3.33 figure that seemed to define their entire lives throughout the panel discussion. The complex lives and stories of these young scholars were simplified into one big, sweeping narrative of bad parenting. The chairman of the council, Phil Lakin, stated, “I was raised in a military household and I was raised to respect people in uniform,” leading to the insinuation that Black children are arrested more often for not being “obedient” or “respectful” to law enforcement. Other panelists pointed to “compounding risk factors”, such as single motherhood, which might make our youth more prone to crime than their white counterparts. This narrative may sound familiar as it is the same narrative that undergirded Daniel P. Moynihan’s 1965 report entitled the The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

Much like Moynihan’s damaging and reckless scholarship, Wednesday’s panel discussion condemned Black families as pathological and possessing what one panelist called “criminogenic factors.” The real stories and lives of our children were obscured in favor of simplistic narratives rooted in casual dog-whistle racism. The kind of covert racism you need a fine-tuned ear to hear but that is nevertheless just as powerful as overt anti-Blackness. 

City councilors and panelists alike labelled Black and Brown youth as mental health cases in the making. Our children were called “Ferraris without brakes,” said to possess “cultural trauma” resulting from errors in perception about the terrors of policing in this country. Referred to as the ominous and non-descript “they,” our Black and Brown youth became the scapegoat for a statistic that emphasizes a clear difference in treatment along racial lines by the TPD. Perhaps with good intentions, councilors asked hard-hitting questions about mental health trainings specifically for ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder). These questions, though well intentioned, only further the myth that Black and Brown children are somehow crazed criminals in the making, rather than young people whose childhoods often are stolen because of traumatic interactions with the police. 

Our children were set aside in favor of discussions about white city councilors’ childhoods, parents, and choice in domestic partners. In trying to connect personally with the topic at hand, white city councilors centered their own experiences and stories, remanding our children further to the margins. A particular line of questioning about TPD trainings on LGBTQ+ people and “religious minorities” left the audience wondering if Black and Brown children could indeed be both Black and Brown and also queer, and perhaps, Muslim. The familiar refrain of “I have Black friends/relatives” seemed to radiate through the Williams Theater as if proximity to Black loved ones eradicates complicity and active participation in anti-Black racism. 

If not for the bravery and fortitude of Greg Robinson and Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, our children would have been completely absent from a forum organized in their name. Robinson took the panel, the City of Tulsa, and this country to task for its complicity and active participation in terrorizing Black communities historically and presently. Hall-Harper used her position of power to ask important questions about discretion and why as an Intake Councilor for the city’s Juvenile Bureau she saw Black and Brown kids funnel into detention cages. Robinson courageously and publicly called out an officer who made light of racism with a joke about not liking a sports team. As we all know, Councilor Hall-Harper has had to endure what can only be called the convergence of anti-Blackness, colorism, and sexism from her fellow Councilors and the general public. To confront these structural powers without flinching is a strength Black leaders should not have to possess and yet we are so thankful Robinson and Councilor Hall-Harper do. 

In many ways, the event Wednesday was historic. Tulsa should be proud that our City Councilors responded to community demands to hold these sessions. Still, our children were nowhere to be seen in Wednesday night’s discussion. And we should all be ashamed. In an attempt to hold our police department accountable for its deliberate and discriminatory practices, our children got left behind.

Photo Credit: David Werbrouck