Watching children chained to each other in Chicago’s Juvenile Court causes me to think of Derrick Bell.
The racialized image of bondage, slavery and chain gangs evoked by the passage of these youths is unavoidable. Yet hundreds of committed employees carry on each day, undismayed by this silent assault on the dignity of children. I hear Professor Bell whisper to me when I rage at this treatment of young men, whisper that I’ve focused on symbol rather than substance. Surely, Bell would point out, even unchained these young people would be arrested, detained and adjudicated in heartbreaking disproportion; 80% of the youth in detention are African-American and 10% are Hispanic, in a country where 64% of the juveniles are white. Entry into the juvenile justice system is in large part racially defined, and foretells an impoverished future. This year, nearly half of all African-American children are born into poverty, and Blacks are three times as likely as mites to be poor.
The causes of this overrepresentation of children of color in juvenile court are multiple and intertwined, but the machinery and message of racism permeates the apparatus. These youths are disposable, dangerous and doomed. Another, private, system operates for white youth. The public pretends that the solutions are mysterious or expensive, but our own children have access to the schools, health care, security and dreams that all youth deserve. These children are denied.
By placing the permanence of racism squarely in the frame, Bell calls not for acceptance but for resistance as an existential act, consciously determined, based neither on sentiment nor victory, but taken nonetheless as ethical “makers-of-meaning.” This notion involves creating a public space by acting, by imagining racial equality, by forging an engaged citizenry based on “committed living.” Poet/ author bell hooks tells her students, “If you can’t imagine something, it can’t come into being.” Derrick Bell insists at we acknowledge the impossibility yet act through conviction-what the South African revolutionaries call “tunneling from both ends.”
Cornel West notes that “the notion that we are all part of one garment of destiny is discredited…. There is no escape from our interracial interdependence, yet enforced racial hierarchy dooms us as a nation to collective paranoia and hysteria-the unmaking of any democratic order.” For white people, resistance includes disrupting the “taken -for-granted” and the “carelessness” of privilege. It requires humility, acceptance of inadequacy and doses of good humor.
At the end of the 1990s, described best by W.E.B. DuBois as a century defined by “the issue of the color line,” my world view based on certain understandings of racism, sexism and imperialism seems inadequate. How to understand the mass cultures of religious fundamentalism, endemic violence or the collapse of highly unsatisfactory socialism? Icreasingly, I choose based on a stubborn sense of allying with the oppressed, identifying with the “other”: what Toni Morrison calls “entering what one is estranged from.” I fight for strategy and vision, but no longer insist that there is a rational fit.
I work with and for children because they require “futuring”-thinking beyond the bottom line and next year’s election. They mirror back to us our failures and limitations, and our small, ragged mortality. The honest observations of my three sons spur me to chart the unsettling course of who I am. They spotlight the multiple hypocrisies. They tease me for obsessing about the paradigm of race in sports, music and film and for choosing sides correspondingly. They watch.
Happily, I write these reflections from South Africa, from a conference considering juvenile justice for the new government that will emerge from next April’s elections. Here children rage in the townships, are incarcerated in adult prisons and live on the streets. They also attend school, rallies and work to support their families. Here fear and hope mingle in abundance and long-held dreams are being struck into realistic tools. The contrast with our diminishing hope in U.S. is agonizing.
James Baldwin wrote (in The Fire Next Time): “To be sensual … is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, or life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” Yes.