Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Cahn Reviews Henning's The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth (2021)

Naomi Cahn (UVA), writing for Family Law JOTWELL (THE JOURNAL OF THINGS WE LIKE (LOTS)):

In the introduction to her book, Kristin Henning writes: “We live in a society that is uniquely afraid of Black children.” (P. xv.) The Rage of Innocence shows just what that means for Black children – and the rest of us.

In bleak chapters, Henning examines the criminalization of Black youth. A chapter contrasting the experiences of white and Black American adolescents sets the table. The next three chapters examine how “play,” clothing and hip-hop, and sexuality transform into markers of crime. A set of chapters examining policing-based activities follows, while the penultimate two chapters explore the “dehumanization” of Black children and Black families. Henning shows how the police and school “resource officers” treat the normal behaviors of childhood, when exhibited by Black children, as illegal activities while the same behaviors of white children are unnoticed – or rewarded. She starts almost every chapter with the story of a particular child or youth, and then embeds those stories in social science data and legal analysis that back up and illustrate her point.

Growing up Black, she shows, means the constant and “excessive intrusion” by the police (xvii) into the lives of Black youth, and the criminalization even of giggling: “four twelve-year old Black and Latina girls were strip-searched” at their middle school for laughing, because they were seen as “’hyper’ and ‘giddy.’” (P. 32.)

Or consider hoodies, which were designed to help high school athletes stay warm. When white high school girls wear them to yoga, they are unremarkable. By contrast: “A Black boy in a hoodie is viewed as a threat and a menace. His clothing causes shopkeepers to call 911.” (P. 51.)

While juvenile justice is a distinct discipline, it straddles family law as well as criminal law. As Henning shows, the criminal apparatus stands in for, or overlaps with, the parental function of shaping children’s lives and instilling certain values; the book provides perspective on how children come of age in in a setting outside of their families or the abuse and neglect system, in the third system of incarceration. Those of us in the family law sphere may include a unit on juvenile justice in a child, parent, and state course, or discuss it in the basic family law course. Henning’s book provides the tools to include more material in our courses on how juvenile justice intersects with the family, and the book shows the critical importance of doing so.

Read more here.

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