What Happens When the Bargain is Breached: An Interview with James Bell

At the fall 2014 YTFG meeting, James Bell, founder and Executive Director of the Burns Institute, spoke about applying the well-being framework to young men of color. I recently had the opportunity to discuss in more depth Bell’s ideas about how we need to proceed as a nation. Below are the highlights of our conversation:

How can the well-being framework shape our efforts to improve the life outcomes of youth?

From the time our children are born, we aspire to have them grow up in a loving environment with opportunities for education and play that keep them happy and healthy. As a society we have an obligation to enhance nurturing and provide supports so that children are able to reach their maximum potential regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, income, or ability. Indeed, in many communities across this nation, children are expected to exhibit all the characteristics of childhood—good and bad—as part of normal development. However, in far too many communities of color, we have eliminated the space for children to exhibit age appropriate behavior by criminalizing conduct through fear-based policies and practices.

It is time to reclaim childhood for youth of color. It is time to challenge the pervasive perceptions that children of color, regardless of age, are inherently more dangerous than White youth, thereby necessitating a firmer hand. There are numerous studies documenting that youth of color are bearing the brunt of decisions that incarcerate first and ask questions later. Yet children of color are supposed to miraculously brush off these policy and practice assaults and demonstrate exemplary behavior. Alvin Ransom, a resident of Ferguson, MO, said it best while reflecting on the killing of unarmed Michael Brown by a police officer—“we have to put on a show so they think we are perfect.”

Perfection? When has a teenager ever been expected to make good decisions all of the time? We know that their brains are undergoing enormous changes that are shaping their behavior. That is an expectation no teenager can ever meet—and the result for young people of color is to be dragged into the justice system.

Even of more concern is the degree to which we project super-human attributes onto young men of color. The narratives that are told about the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown suggest young men with superhuman strength—according to the officer’s narrative, Michael Brown was so out of control he had to be shot seven times. When you listen to the video of the shooting of Tamar Rice, you can hear the officer refer to this twelve-year old child as a twenty-year-old Black male. Where is this coming from? Why is it believable to the general public that Tamar looked twenty or that suddenly Michael Brown had super-human strength? The bias comes from somewhere—it comes from living in America—where we are bombarded with messages in the media, in the political rhetoric, and in music and entertainment that have resulted in becoming afraid of our children of color. They have become the unknown.

The research described in the report The Essence of Innocence by Philip Goff and his colleagues demonstrates that Black children are less likely to be seen as children and afforded the innocence that comes along with childhood. Their studies showed that a group of university students and police officers, when reviewing pictures of youth labeled as having committed a misdemeanor or a felony, overestimated the age of Black children and to a lesser degree Latino while actually underestimating the age of White youth labeled as having committed a felony. The participants saw youth of culture as more culpable and prone to violence. This suggests there is a deeply ingrained belief system about young people of color shaping our society—a belief system so ingrained we are unable to seem them as children and are more likely to be afraid of them.

The well-being framework firmly describes young people, all young people, as children and adolescents. It can be a powerful tool to look across the four systems that are serving our young people—education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and public health/mental health—and raise the question: Are we holding the same standards for childhood and innocence for all children?

Given these dynamics, what are the implications for our communities and our country?

The United States is changing, and unless the four systems that deal with youth change rapidly, there are going to be enormous repercussions. Right now, Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas are experiencing what other states are going to experience in the coming decades – a shift in the racial and ethnic make-up of the population so that minority groups become the majority of the population – and it is going to change the shape of our nation. Assuming that the current dynamics of poverty continue as we become a minority-majority country, we are going to have a growing population of young people of color who have been directly impacted by systems that do not afford them the privilege of being children and teens. When the justice system doesn’t respond equitably, this begins to tear at the very core of democracy. We are beginning to see that the bargain of civil society is being breached.

Allow me to explain. In addition to our failure to allow Black youth the freedom to be teenagers, we must understand today’s brand of poverty. Today’s poverty isn’t like your father’s poverty or your grandfather’s poverty. The old-style poverty was the absence of funds. This brand of poverty is about lack of funds and the culmination of longstanding policy decisions that have eliminated their life chances. Today’s poverty is about lack of opportunity. It is about entire neighborhoods that have the attributes of concentrated, continuously, geographically isolated poverty.

For example, my father’s poverty and my experience of poverty was that public education still provided an education that led to employment. However, for most of today’s young people growing up in concentrated, continuously, geographically isolated poverty, the education system has broken down, and many young people are not even being taught to read beyond elementary school levels. Only a few can navigate the education system and get through with enough skills to go on to college without having to pay for remediation. The juvenile justice system certainly isn’t providing the services and interventions that children and youth need. Many of our young people in child welfare end up in group homes that provide little for their transition to adulthood. If these systems are failing now, imagine how they are going to have a damaging effect on a greater population of U.S. youth as communities of color—and the poverty that comes with them—continue to grow.