Blackness as delinquency.

Author:Butler, Cheryl Nelson
Position:III. Blackness as Delinquency B. Investigations of Racism in Cook County through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 1368-1397
  1. Investigations of Racism in Cook County

    Black women built coalitions with white allies to investigate juvenile court institutions, challenge racial stereotypes about black youth and delinquency, and protest racial discrimination by the juvenile court. For example, Jane Addams publicly challenged black degenerate theory. (200) Other white reformers, such as Celia Parker Woolley, a CWC member, came to agree with these findings. (201) In doing so, some black and white juvenile court reformers would find common ground and begin to develop new national organizations, including the NAACP and the National Urban League.

    Several investigations of the Cook County Juvenile Court found that black children were rarely protected or rehabilitated by the juvenile court or its institutions. (202) The first study of the court found that, within the court's first decade (1899-1909), a disproportionately large number of black children were brought before the court and adjudicated as delinquent, even though blacks comprised less than 2 percent of the population during this period. (203) Breckenridge and Abbott reasoned:

    Difference of language is an effective barrier [among immigrants], but difference of color is a more effective and a more permanent one. It is necessary, therefore, for many purposes, to class with the various foreign colonies the 30,000 native colored citizens of Chicago, who although they do not suffer from a lack of common language, are barred from the complete enjoyment of many so-called common rights by a prejudice which manifests itself in many and subtle ways. (204) Here, they suggested that the same arguments that excused delinquency among immigrant children, namely, urban decay and lack of adjustment, also applied to black youth. (205)

    The Juvenile Protective Association (the "JPA")--a coalition of child savers focused on protecting minors as well as young adults age 17-21 from delinquency and crime (206)--conducted its own race investigation. This investigation was consistent with the JPA's role of investigating complaints into the social causes of delinquency, such as the rise of vice districts, the sale of alcohol to minors, or the lack of recreational opportunities for youth. The JPA then advocated that the juvenile court and other government agencies address these root causes of delinquency. (207) The JPA expressed the view that the majority of youth under juvenile court jurisdiction were "the innocent victims of vicious and unlawful neighborhood influences." (208)

    In 1913, the JPA investigation confirmed that stringent racial oppression played a major role in placing black youth at risk for delinquent behavior and that the juvenile court system discriminated against black youth on the basis of their race. (209) The JPA reported that "although the colored people of Chicago approximate one-fortieth of the entire population, one-eighth of the boys and young men and nearly one-third of the girls and young women who had been confined to the jail during the year were Negroes." (210) To conduct its investigation, the JPA interviewed "all the boys" in the Cook County jail. (211) The JPA opined that "it was clear that the lack of congenial and remunerative employment had been a determining factor in [the boys'] tendency to criminality...." (212)

    In her groundbreaking book, Safeguards for City Youth at Work and At Play, Louise de Koven Bowen echoed and expanded upon these findings that pervasive race discrimination caused high delinquency rates among black youth. (213) Bowen compared the increased opportunities for economic mobility for immigrants to impediments faced by black families moving their families out of crime-prone and overcrowded urban neighborhoods:

    [T]he sons and daughters of colored families ... because they continually find the door of opportunity shut in their faces, are more easily forced back into their early environment however vicious it may have been.... the colored young people, however ambitious, find it extremely difficult to move their families or even themselves into desirable parts of the city.... (214) Bowen adds that racial discrimination in employment, education, housing, and the criminal justice system placed black children at great risk of involvement in delinquent behavior, including coerced prostitution, theft, school truancy, and vagrancy. (215) Bowen confirmed that the juvenile court perpetuated these inequalities by refusing to house even "semi-delinquent colored children" in reformatories or other alternatives to adult prisons, with administrators often using "the cryptic utterance, 'We have no room."' (216) As a result, she found that "the care for dependent and semi-delinquent colored children is totally inadequate" in light of the disproportionate rates of reported black crime. (217)

    Bowen also reflected on her personal involvement with the JPA's advocacy on behalf of a nineteen-year-old black man named George W. who was arrested based on a charge of raping a white girl. Bowen recalled that:

    At the police station [George] was not allowed to sleep, was beaten, cuffed and kicked, and finally battered and frightened, he confessed that he had committed the crime.... The evidence against him was so flimsy that the judge referred to it as such in his instructions to the jury.... Though the description given by the people who saw the colored man running away [from the crime scene] did not agree with George's appearance, nevertheless the jury brought in a verdict of guilty and the judge sentenced the boy to fourteen years in the penitentiary. When one of the [witnesses] ... was asked why he did not make his testimony more explicit, he replied, "Oh well, he's only a nigger anyway." (218) The JPA made vigorous efforts to get the case overturned but could not persuade the court to free George from the penitentiary. (219)

    Bowen and the JPA recommended several remedies for the unjust discrimination and its correlating high rates of crime among young black people. First, Bowen advocated that the larger society abandon its propensities toward racial stereotypes. "[G]eneralizing against the negro," she wrote, "should cease; the fact that one negro is bad should not fix criminality upon the race." She added: "the negro should not be made the universal 'scapegoat."' (220) Second, housing and employment discrimination by whites against blacks should cease. (221) Third, black children lacked but desperately needed preventative institutional care. Fourth, discrimination against blacks in the provision of recreation activities, including the use of swimming pools and Lake Michigan, should cease. (222)

    Apparently, the JPA's recommendations fell on deaf ears. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which resulted when a black boy was stoned to death after swimming in Lake Michigan, suggests that Cook County and its juvenile court system had failed to implement these recommendations. (223) Following the Riot, the Chicago Race Commission conducted an extensive investigation into racial oppression of blacks by individuals and social institutions, including the juvenile court. (224) The Commission's groundbreaking investigation of race relations in turn of the century Chicago confirmed that, by 1919, racial discrimination against black youth by the Cook County Juvenile Court was pervasive. (225) The juvenile and criminal courts' reputations for discriminatory treatment of black children became so notorious that several national black organizations would conduct reports that concurred with the Commission's findings. The Commission reported:

    [F]rom the records and from the testimony of the judges in the juvenile, municipal, circuit, superior, and criminal courts, of police officials, the state's attorney, and various experts on crime, probation, parole, [it appears] that Negroes are more commonly arrested, subjected to police identification, and convicted than white offenders; that on similar evidence they are generally held and convicted on more serious charges, and that they are given longer sentences. This bias, which is reflected in the figures, serves to bolster by false figures the already existing belief that Negroes are more likely to be criminal than other racial groups. (226) Embracing these theories, some white administrators of juvenile reformatories believed that a black juvenile was so permanently degenerate that he could never be reformed.

    The Chicago Race Commission also found the major environmental factor that contributed to delinquency among the black population was racism. The Report found that this racism distinguished the black experience from that of white immigrants. Black migrants endured discrimination in education, housing (the forced segregation of the black population near vice districts), and employment.

    The juvenile court also connected blackness with delinquency in gendered ways, thereby perpetuating intersectional racial and gender oppression. (227) For example, investigations confirmed that the juvenile court sanctioned intersecting race and gender discrimination within its reformatories. Investigations of the Illinois State Industrial School for Delinquent Girls at Geneva--a Cook County Juvenile Court institution--found that officials there diagnosed girls as "psychopathic," "feeble-minded," "hysterical," and "lesbian"; they also used such terms to taunt girls. (228) In this way, the officials at Geneva characterized interracial relationships between residents, whether sexual or platonic, as delinquent, immoral behavior. The staff was also known to spit racial epithets at black girls. (229)

    The race hatred against blacks also fostered other forms of discrimination against other groups institutionalized by the juvenile court. At Geneva, white girls who befriended the black girls were derided by staff as "nigger lovers" and "White trash." (230) In this way, juvenile courts used racial stereotypes to link young black women with sexual promiscuity--the...

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