Unfinished Business: the Civil Rights Act of 2020

Child Rights
Racial Equity

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Our country should love, cherish, and care for all of our children, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, zip code, or immigration status. About half of the children in this country are now white and half are children of color.

As author Maya Angelou writes:

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength

Equality, fairness, and diversity are our strengths, but only if we embrace those values.

Sadly, 57 years ago, Governor George Wallace declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and attempted to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to block the admission of Black students to the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy took action to protect Black students and called on the nation to pass a series of civil rights laws in a radio and television address to the nation. President Kennedy said:

I hope that every American, regardless or where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened…

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.

JFK’s Address to the Nation on Civil Rights 1963

The culmination of many tragic events including the brutal murder of Emmett Till (14) in Chicago, civil rights protests, marches, and incredible brave acts by a number of young people in this country, including the Little Rock Nine being admitted to school by federal troops, Ruby Bridges (6) escorted by federal marshals to integrate New Orleans schools, the Children’s Crusade, and the Freedom Rides led to the passage of landmark bills: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act).

These were important steps, but our country has a long journey ahead of it to achieve the America envisioned by President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, who in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, said:

This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.

While many are calling for police reform (and that is certainly important), the problems we must resolve demand that we go much further. Our nation must combat structural racism in all of its forms, and young people are, once again, leaders in this conversation.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow explains:

This society creates conditions in which extreme, concentrated poverty can exist and then punishes those who react negatively to being condemned to that poverty.

This society doesn’t sufficiently care for and insure people, guaranteeing that every person, regardless of station or wealth, has equal access to health care, and then it punishes those who suffer from stress, depression and violent fits of rage because of it.

This society systematically cloisters power — economic, political and cultural — in the hands of an elite few, almost all white, and then bemoans the apathy of those from whom power is withheld.

We need more than performative symbols of solidarity. We need more than narrow, chaste legislation.

Charles Blow is right to call for “nothing short of a new civil rights act, the Civil Rights Act of 2020.”

To get it, we must organize, mobilize, and vote to change systems, policies, and our politics.

Again, police reform is a critical first step, and the House of Representatives took action to pass the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”

However, it falls far short of what is necessary, even on the issue of police reform. For example, change should include how police and other systems or institutions interact and take actions against our children, particularly children of color.

As an example, on June 8, 2020, the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City (NYC) released a report on “Youth and Police” that highlighted the majority of substantiated complains filed against police overwhelmingly involved Black or Hispanic youth and included “cases where youth between the ages of 10 and 18 were policed while participating in seemingly innocuous activities such as playing, high-fiving, running, carrying backpacks, and jaywalking.”

That is unacceptable. Normal behavior is not criminal.

Consequently, police departments should have youth coordinators and youth-focused policing approaches and politics that eliminate the treatment of usual adolescent behavior in children of color as criminal.

WNBA star Lisa Leslie wrote a powerful piece in the Player’s Tribune entitled “Dear America” where she highlights the uncomfortable conversations Black parents have to have with their kids and society’s differential response to children based on the color of their skin. Leslie says:

That’s really what breaks my heart the most: the children.

She explains:

You could have a group of white boys on the street, about 17 years old, and they would be seen as a bunch of kids just hanging out. Replace those same white boys with a group of black boys, and they would no longer be seen as kids hanging out. They would be referred to as “thugs.” The narrative changes instantly and the next questions and thoughts are, What are they up to? They look suspicious! Which is pretty much what George Zimmerman said before he shot and killed young Trayvon Martin. He shot and killed him because he looked like he was “up to no good” as he walked home innocently wearing a hoodie on a winter evening holding a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

It’s unfortunate, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. That’s the “talk” that we have to have with our kids.

In addition, we must break the “school-to-prison pipeline” caused, in large part, by a dramatic increase in the adoption of “zero tolerance” policies by some states and schools that have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black students.

This video from Spring Valley High School in South Carolina of a school resource officer (SRO) violently throwing a Black female student to the ground and dragging her across the floor shocked the public.

However, students at Spring Valley High were not shocked. The kids knew about the SRO’s reputation for aggression and use of excessive force and were wise to video the encounter. They knew the adults were failing to protect them from his behavior and would either not believe them, ignore them, or cover up the incident without video evidence.

Compounding the harm at Spring Valley High, one of the students, Niya Kenny, who spoke up and videoed the incident, was arrested and denied the right to graduate. The actions of these students should never have triggered a response from adults that included violence, arrests, pending delinquency changes, and denial of the fundamental rights of children.

This is yet another example is why we must listen to the voices of our children.

Sadly, institutions often fail to protect children, and instead, choose to double down or cover-up harm or abuse (e.g., Kids for Cash in Pennsylvania, the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, the sex abuse scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals, etc.). History tells us that adults entrusted in the care of children often, instead, violate their rights.

In the Spring Valley High incident, SROs are paid public servants, so it is literally a case of society inflicting discrimination and violence against children of color.

There is no excuse for this.

Imagine if an adult entrusted in the care and protection of your child did this to them. It should never be tolerated. It is past time that we listen to our kids and recognize that they have fundamental rights.

The year before that incident was caught on video, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reported:

  • Black children are 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 48 percent of preschool children receiving out-of-school suspensions.
  • Black students are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students.
  • Black students are two times more likely to be subjected to a school-related arrest compared to their population of students.

Our systems need reform.

As a result, we support efforts to change laws to decriminalize normal child behavior and to eliminate or significantly reduce the number of in-school police officers or school resource officers (SROs), as they have led to dramatic increases in arrests, suspensions, and expulsions of students and subsequent referral to juvenile courts.

According to data reported in Vox, “…schools with an SRO had nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO.”

Loyola University law professor Miranda Johnson points out:

When police walk the hallways of schools, the impact on children is not benign. Students who attend schools with police officers are more likely to be ticketed or referred to juvenile court for minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or classroom disruption. They also are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Regular adolescent misbehavior becomes criminalized when viewed through a police lens.

School policing negatively impacts students of color, particularly black students, and students with disabilities. National data shows that black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately referred to law enforcement or arrested for school-based incidents. In Chicago last year, approximately 1 in 12 black students and students with disabilities were referred to the police by their school.

In response to the triple threat of systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic recession, students, who may be returning to school this fall, should be met with teachers, counselors, nurses, social workers, and paraprofessionals rather than police officers who, even among those that are well-intentioned, are not trained in education, child health, and child well-being.

Consequently, we support the youth-led #PoliceFreeSchools movement in Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Charlottesville, and other communities all across the country.

Similarly, we must end other forms of violence against children, such as corporal punishment. Christina Caron, parenting reporter for the New York Times, writes:

Corporal punishment is banned in the United States’ military training centers and can no longer be carried out as a sentence for a crime. It is prohibited at Head Start programs and in most juvenile detention facilities, too.

But in many states, there is one place where it is permissible to hit, spank or slap: school.

Disturbingly, 19 states allow corporal punishment.

According to an analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the states that allow it are disproportionately in the Southeast. The GAO also found that 38 percent of all students that were disciplined with corporal punishment were Black students in school year 2013–14 when their share of the student population was just 15 percent.

The fact that is it disproportionately used against children of color in the former states of the Confederacy is another form of structural racism and speaks to the urgent need for a national ban on violence against children in all of its forms.

In Congress, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) has introduced H.R. 727, the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2019.” It is well past the time to end what is a government-sanctioned form of child abuse.

Beyond reforms related to police and schools, author Jason Overstreet is absolutely right to push for a much wider policy agenda to protect Black lives.

And when it comes to the youngest among us, the lives of our children and their care and well-being is a basic moral responsibility. Unfortunately, on the most basic and fundamental levels, we are failing them.

According to a study published in Health Affairs of mortality data in the United States and 19 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD19) nations for the years 2001 to 2010:

…infants in the US had a 76 percent increased risk of death, and children ages 1–19 a 57 percent increased risk of death. If the US had achieved just the average childhood mortality rate of the OECD19 over the fifty-year study period, over 600,000 deaths could have been avoided — a rate of about 20,000 excess deaths per year by the turn of the century.

This is a terrible American tragedy, but the story is even worse for Black babies in America.

According to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites.
  • African American infants are 3.8 times as likely to die from complications related to low birth weight as compared to non-Hispanic white infants.
  • African Americans had over twice the sudden infant death syndrome mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites, in 2017.
  • In 2017, African American mothers were 2.3 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to receive late or no prenatal care.

If Black Lives Matter, systemic racism, the devaluing of people, and the neglect of children in our society must be addressed. Black lives matter and it should begin with babies and children.

As Nick Kristof of the New York Times points out:

…a black boy born today in Washington, D.C., Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or a number of other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh or India.

Where is our empathy, our morality, or our compassion for our children?

We must also address what the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has long referred to as the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.” As CDF’s founder Marion Wright Edelman said more than a decade ago:

Child poverty and neglect, racial disparities in systems that serve children, and the pipeline to prison are not acts of God. They are America’s immoral political and economic choices that can and must be changed with strong political, corporate and community leadership.

No single sector or group can solve these child- and nation-threatening crises alone but all of us can together. Leaders must call us to the table and use their bully pulpits to replace our current paradigm of punishment as a first resort with a paradigm of prevention and early intervention. That will save lives, save families, save taxpayer money, and save our nation’s aspiration to be a fair society. Health and mental health care and quality education cost far less than prisons.

A Children’s Focus on Race Equity

The dangers facing children are critical but often ignored. Instead, their needs deserve our immediate and long-term attention. Author Clint Smith writes:

Our children have raised the stakes of this fight, while also shifting the calculus of how we move within it. It is one thing to be concerned for my own well-being, to navigate the country as a black man and to encounter its risks. It is another thing to be raising two black children and to consider both the dangers for yourself and the dangers that lie ahead for them.

The stakes and challenges are enormous for our children, and the agenda must be ambitious and comprehensive.

If we look across the entire range of Black lives, we cannot accept that the U.S. has the highest maternal, infant, and child mortality rates among all OECD nations. We must strive to be among the best. Our children deserve better.

We should work at every level of government to establish police free schools and to end corporal punishment. Schools should be a place of learning, exploration, nurture, and growth. Adults should provide children all they need to thrive and be successful rather than an emphasis on fear and punishment. Our children deserve better.

In addition, all of our schools should be equitably funded and places where students are inspired and given all the tools they need to achieve their full God-given potential. Our children deserve better.

We must Cover All Kids and ensure that every child has full access to high-quality, affordable, pediatric-focused health care that includes comprehensive developmental and pediatric-appropriate benefits and services. Our children deserve better.

We must not accept the fact that children are 54 percent more likely to live in poverty than adults and we call upon Congress to set a national goal to cut child poverty in half and to address policy failures, such as the fact that 23 million children in our society do not get the full Child Tax Credit because their parents earn too little. Our children deserve better.

We must end the separation of children from their parents along the border and stop the placement of children in cages. A government agency created to protect us against terrorism has been weaponized to inflict harm upon children with a policy where “cruelty is the point.”

Again, our children deserve better.

Where Are Our Leaders?

We stand at a critical junction. Where are our leaders bringing people together in order to meet the challenges of racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession, and a government prepared to fulfill its promise of equality and respect for all of its citizens.

We have a president that has chosen a path to retreat into the past, to promote violence, to build walls, and to commit, in columnist Catherine Rampell’s words, a “War on Children”.

Rampell writes:

…even without Trump’s baby jails and proposed Medicaid cuts, our country’s emphasis on children’s well-being is seriously deficient.

Last year, for the first time on record, we spent a greater share of the federal budget servicing the national debt than we did on children, according to an analysis out next week from First Focus on Children. Spending on children as a share of the federal budget is also expected to shrink over the coming decade, crowded out by both debt service and spending on the elderly.

Unfortunately, none of this should be all that surprising. In 1989, Trump called for the execution of five innocent adolescent Black youth for the rape of a white woman jogging in Central Park with a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”

Trump never even apologized for falsely accusing those young Black boys, whose lives were destroyed by their wrongful arrest and convictions. All served time even though they were innocent and were subsequently exonerated in 2002. They deserved better from Trump and the American justice system back in 1989 and both they and their children deserve better.

A far better vision for both all of our citizens would be to embrace our growing racial and ethnic diversity, find common ground, common decency, and racial harmony, increase opportunities that enable everyone (no matter their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, zip code, or immigration status) to fulfill their greatest potential, invest in our children and families, and to set the nation on a path to end discrimination and inequality.

As Martin Luther King said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Nearly 57 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered his “Civil Rights Address” from the White House on June 11, 1963, and his words still resonant and speak to us today far more than anything we have heard from the current president on matters of racial and social justice. As Kennedy said:

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated…

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. In cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.

Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.

These words — every single word — are still relevant today.

President Barack Obama said in response to George Floyd’s death:

This shouldn’t be “normal” in 2020 America. It can’t be “normal.” If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.

Our children are watching and listening, and they will emulate. As my First Focus on Children colleague Messellech Looby writes:

We, as a nation, are at a critical inflection point and the future we leave our children, and generations after that, will depend on the steps we take next.