The Scapegoating of America’s Youth: Past and Present (Mis)Conceptions

Even as adult and youth crime indices began to drop from their 1994 peaks, DiIulio, with a handful of other criminologists and academics, warned of violence rooted in the inner cities – specifically in young black men raised by single mothers – that would spill over into unsuspecting white suburbs and infect white kids with the superpredator syndrome. Their warnings were based upon the “youth bulge” theory which blames increasing crime and social disorder on rising numbers of young people.


The moral and civic arguments for acting to save America’s at-risk black inner-city children should be enough for any decent American to want to act… While there is as yet no strong statistical evidence that inner-city crime has ‘spilled over’ into up-scale urban neighborhoods or adjacent suburbs, the demographics of the problem make the inner cities a ticking crime bomb.


Contrary to the fears of DiIulio and his colleagues, statistics from the FBI’s 1999 crime report show that violent juvenile crimes are at their lowest point in twenty years. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice noted that there is a one in two million chance of being killed in a school. Out of all youth-committed crimes, embezzlement increased the most since 1995. Perhaps DiIulio should author a new report: “The Coming of the Super-Embezzlers.”


Although school crime is at an all-time low, armed guards, metal detectors, and clear backpacks have made their way into the typical American school setting, indicating an increasingly narrow gap between the public school and the prison. In the past twenty years, federal and state policy makers have advocated for more and more punitive measures for juvenile offenders.


This sentiment is a far cry from the notions of rehabilitation that we have held to be fundamental to the juvenile justice system since its inception a century ago. Conservatives argue that the shift from rehabilitative to punitive policies for youth is indicative of an actual change in the nature of young people, while liberals contest that it is people’s perceptions of youth that have changed.


Media cries of “What’s wrong with our children?!” after every school shooting may make you think that there was a time in the nostalgic American past when grown-ups did not believe that youth were out of control. But in truth, American adults have always believed that youth in their time are more violent than kids in the past.


At the same time women were demanding not only entrance to college but participation in the public sphere, challenging traditional Victorian gender roles. The Industrial Revolution became a symbol of man’s intellect and domination over nature, but some worried that it was a harbinger of a dehumanized world, ruled by technology.


Growing populations of immigrant youth represented a threat to white supremacy. The exclusion of youth from the work force as a result of child labor laws represented the increasing dominance of mechanization and technology in the industrial world. Out of attempts to maintain racial, class, gender, and national superiority emerged institutions that focused on the control and regulation of youth.


In reality, informality of process gave the juvenile court coercive power to extend itself into the homes of those who were outside of middle class standards of “proper parents” or “normal adolescents.” The lack of due process and documentation left the court with little accountability or responsibility for its treatment of parents or children.


In this system, delinquency became an identification loaded with meaning about race, class, and sex norms and (mis)behaviors. All youth were considered as dependent upon adults to represent their best interest. In that status of dependence they were essentially voiceless – relying on adults to articulate their supposed best interests.


At a time when many are pointing to a more punitive juvenile justice and public school system as evidence of some recent change in our attitudes toward young people, a historical examination of the rise of these institutions suggests that perhaps our attitudes are not so different after all.


The Census 2000 reported that California has no racial majority – and demographers predict that the rest of the country will soon follow suit. These characteristics seem a 21st century version of the social changes that characterized the environment in which the juvenile court was born. Reformers of the late 19th century also faced an increasingly smaller world as a result of U.S. imperial projects and increased immigration. Much like the Internet signifies technology that we are unsure of our capacity to handle, commentators in the last century were expressing concerns over the growth of industrialization and the shifting nature of labor.


These debates recall youth discourses of 1900 in which the social control of youth relied on their exclusion from public dialogue. Underlying these discourses one can read a century-old initiative to maintain race, class, and gender hierarchies through the bodies of youth in the face of a rapidly changing society.



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