“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
In today’s society many will argue that our treatment of youth of color is unbiased. But there is far too much evidence to the contrary. We are not the unprejudiced society that allows for its youth of color the same consideration, concern and empathetic protection for their failings that we allow White youth. We see them… differently.
According to the American Psychological Association research shows that “Black and Brown boys at around age 9 are seen as less innocent as their white peers.” This “accelerated adultification” of Black and Brown boys is dangerous. It places upon boys of color an expectation of maturity and accountability they don’t have. It makes people perceive them as stronger, bigger and older than they are. It strips away the protective innocence of youth. It allows us to see them as less worthy and leads to the tragedies that befell Tamir Rice, Khalif Browder and Trayvon Martin. However, the even greater tragedy is the failing of our society to hold accountable the individuals and system that took their young lives.
Over the past week, Ava DuVernay’s incredible and revealing series “When They See Us” is a telling indictment of not only the criminal justice system but our treatment of Black and Brown boys as a society. DuVernay’s handling of the true story of the Central Park Five holds up a mirror and forces us to admit a truth we have craftily avoided. That Black and Brown boys and young men are broadly negatively stereotyped by society as threatening and uncontrollable.
What we saw happen to the lives of Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson is not an outlier. This is not a tale of what happens when the system goes wrong. It is a tale of how we have failed and continue to fail to protect young people of color. The injustice that befell them is not something we have moved beyond. This is still an evil we grapple with in our current context and one important way we can address this evil is to reform our criminal justice system for the sake of our children’s futures.
In Milwaukee, Justice Reform for youth has been a major conversation ever since the State’s passage of Act 185 and their selection of a site in Milwaukee for a Type 1 facility. I publicly shared my frustrations with the process that the State went through and the lack of community notification prior to this selection. However, we have to take a step back and remember the true purpose of this effort. We are trying to actually support our young people instead of discarding their futures. We are trying to make sure that a mistake by an adolescent doesn’t turn into the end of that person’s chance to be successful.
We are fighting to give our kids a chance at long, fulfilling adulthoods that are not marred by the trauma they experience in a facility like Lincoln Hills. We know that these institutions were not designed to ensure success on the other side of their walls. It is time to do it differently, and we are at a time when this is bi-partisan and accepted by so many public officials. Our community must respond to this crisis with the urgency it merits.
In Youth Justice Milwaukee’s Community Listening Sessions, a few constant themes came up from residents and industry partners alike. Every child needs love, guidance, forgiveness, and healing. We know how much our children are subjected to on a daily basis. Under-resourced neighborhoods lacking in the necessary infrastructure to create strong vibrant home environments leads to a life impacted by these challenges. It is morally wrong to replicate the neglect and trauma that led them into our justice system once they get here.
When young people are referred to the Justice System, we actually have the chance to bring them stability and healing. Our facilities can be nurturing and supportive in ways that transform their lives and changes their trajectories. In Milwaukee, we already have places like the Ujima House and Bakari House that provide a model. If the investment going into Act 185 is redirected in a way that allows every young person that comes in contact with our Justice System to receive this type of care, we can radically alter the outcomes for black and brown people in this City and the entire nation.
Our largest barrier to this reality coming to be is the existing mentality about Black and Brown boys that is put on display in “When They See Us.” This fear and inherent criminalization has been ingrained into our consciousness and leads to a dismissal of the value of boys and men of color. Each and every life is sacred and holds abundant promise and potential. Yet, some lives are not given this assumption.
In conversations about the Type 1 Facility site selection, this was an inescapable reality. People voiced a need to keep criminals out of their neighborhoods. Fear was expressed about what type of people they would bring to the neighborhood. We don’t want their families and friends around our houses. We have to move past this problematic thinking and remember that these are children, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds who desperately need the love and healing of their community if they are ever to have positive futures. To continue to turn them away only re-enforces the impact of the conditions that plague our community. We cannot collectively be aghast with disgust and rage over the treatment of the Central Park Five and then deny our own Black and Brown children most needing of our support. We have to be better.
There are numerous quotes attributed to several individuals that state that the moral test of a society is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. Through the Youth Justice Reform movement that we have in our State and County, we have been given the opportunity to do right by one of our most vulnerable groups. Our arms should be open and our hands should be ready to work to integrate them back into society. I know that Milwaukee is better than the rhetoric I hear in these conversations. Let’s continue to be active and engaged in the fight for our children’s lives. We cannot allow more futures to be stolen by a system that was never meant to work for their benefit. Let’s finally see them for who they are, our children.