How do we truly see our children? Racial bias and its role in juvenile justice

by Contributing Writer Tyrance Billingsley II

Are all children created equal in Tulsa, Oklahoma? Or rather, do the systems we have built and schemas we have constructed about our children reflect that? A section of the recent City of Tulsa Equality Indicators report showed a large disparity in youth arrests between minority and white children. The children are our future; that much we seem to all agree on in theory. However, like so many other things in our society, there seems to be a lack of close attention given when thinking about this statement. 

Since the children are our future, whatever perceptions we have of them and whatever labels we place on them are the perceptions and labels that will ultimately shape and define our trajectory as a city. Whatever value we do or don’t assign to our children now will manifest in the form of even more pronounced social privileges or injustices tomorrow. Whatever archetypes, tropes, and even caricatures, we attach to our children today, will have a profound effect on what Tulsa’s populous looks like years from now.  We have built a system that, consciously or otherwise, assigns different tiers of value to children based on preconceived notions that are heavily influenced by race and social class. Some would argue that our system attempts to celebrate the success of all students regardless of background. That may be true. However, we see the brokenness of this system not in the children we celebrate, but in the children we find trouble with and the different ways we respond to and classify them. 

Does the average adult and the average police officer view at the boy of color smoking weed in North Tulsa the same way they view the white upper-middle-class boy smoking weed or drinking while underage in South Tulsa? How much of how they view the two cases is influenced by factors like how the student speaks, where the student lives, what school they attend, or even the color of their skin? If this is not the case, step outside of the role of the police officer and look at it from a civilian adult’s perspective. Ask yourself, why do certain kids get labeled as “trouble makers on a bad path” while other kids get the grace of “just being children and going through the phases we all go through”? What are the factors that influence these judgments that are held by many adults? What are the factors that influence many police officers to arrest some and treat them like delinquents and spare others under the pretext of them “just being kids making bad choices”? Why do some have their parents called before anything else occurs and others are essentially treated as if they were adults? When one matches these questions up with the questions of different factors proposed above, a disturbing picture begins to develop. This picture along with the results of the Equality Indicators report strongly indicate that race plays a major part in these determinations. 

Whether it be smoking weed, underage drinking at parties, or simply engaging in frequent disorderly conduct, it’s not ideal. Not all kids do it, but a majority of them have at some point as is the case with whoever is likely reading this right now. So if this is something that we know goes on everywhere, why is there a disparity in who is getting arrested and who isn’t ? I am not saying that all police officers overtly go around looking for Black and Hispanic children to arrest for the sake of targeting minorities. I am saying that based on the Equality Indicators report, it is very likely that these disparities are produced by unconscious biases that cause individuals of authority, such as police officers, to bring harsher disciplines down on children of color due to the media-molded interpretation of their problems as early signs of criminality and deviation as a result of constant exposure to negative tropes and notions about children of color. School administrators and disciplinarians are just as vulnerable to these biases. Their biases working in conjunction with officer biases create an assembly line of harsh disciplinary practices visited upon children of color that inevitably feeds the school to prison pipeline.

There is a preconceived idea of where the crime is and what mold the criminals are likely to fit. This ultimately influences where some police spend most of their time and how they deal with the children they encounter. I would genuinely love to believe that this has nothing to do with factors like race or class, but both research and my own first hand experience strongly implies a causality. That is what continuously pulls me back to the questions I am asking and that Tulsa needs to get serious about asking itself. 

It can be difficult confronting the idea of systemic racism and unconscious bias. But in order to solve these issues for the sake of our children, we have to get past that. Finding, acknowledging, and breaking down these unconscious biases is the only way to break down the schemas that have ultimately become life sentences for many of our children. Bias and systemic racism in the end can be as simple as broad sympathy and understanding towards white children who fit a certain mold of what a young person should look like and broad skepticism or scrutiny towards minority children who may look different than that conventional mold. All in all, if you don’t have the same reaction to the young African-American male in North Tulsa you see smoking weed as you do to the South Tulsa/Midtown white kid smoking weed next door while their parents are away, you have work to do. So does all of Tulsa.