Editor's Note: Lisa Wade, PhD originally wrote this posted this piece on The Society Pages in 2010. In the wake of last week's verdict in the George Zimmerman case, she republished it there and has given permission to HuffPost to do the same.
Leontine G. sent in a troubling example of the framing of children’s deviance, and their own complicity in this framing. She included two links: one to a "Today" show story about a 7-year-old boy who took his family’s car on a joyride and got caught by police, and one to a CNN story about a 7-year-old boy who took his family’s car on a joyride and got caught by police. Different 7-year-olds. One white, one black.
The white boy, Preston, is interviewed with his family on the set of the "Today" show. Knowing his kid is safe, his Dad describes the event as “funny” and tells the audience that if this could happen to a “cotton candy all-American kid like Preston,” then “it could happen to anybody.”
When the host, Meredith Vieira, asks Preston why he hid from the police, he says, “cause I wanted to,” and she says, “I don’t blame you actually.” With Preston not too forthcoming, his Mom steps in to say that he told her that “he just wanted to know what it felt like to drive a car.” When Vieira asks him why he fled from the police, he replies with a shrug. Vieira fills in the answer, “You wanted to get home?”
Vieira then comments on how they all then went to church. The punishment? Grounded for four days without TV or video games. Vieira asks the child, “Do you think that’s fair?” He says yes. And she continues, “Do you now understand what you did?” He nods and agrees. “And that maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing?” He nods and agrees. “You gonna get behind the wheel of a car again?” He says no. Then she teases him about trying out model toy cars.
They conclude that this incident just goes to show that “Any little kid, you never know what can happen…” and close: “I’ll be seeing you at church buddy boy!”
All in all, exactly what you’d expect from the "Today" show: a heartwarming, human interest story with a happy ending. The child is framed as a fundamentally good kid who was curious and perhaps a bit impetuous. When he has no answers for Vieira’s questions, she slots in innocent ones. And the mild punishment is seen as incidental to the more important idea that he learned something.
This story contrasts dramatically to the CNN story about Latarian Milton, a black 7-year-old who took his family’s car on a joy ride. I’ll put the video first, but be forewarned, it’s disturbing not only because of the different frame placed on the boy's actions, but because of the boy’s embracing of the spoiled identity (apology for the commercial):
With an absolutely polar introduction of “Not your typical 7-year-old,” this story is filmed on the street. Whereas the "Today" show screened the chase footage in real time, this one is sped up, making it seem even more extreme.
The interviewer, off-camera, asks Latarian why he took the car. He replied: “I wanted to do it ’cause it’s fun, it’s fun to do bad things.” The interviewer asks further, “Did you know that you could perhaps kill somebody?” And he replies: “Yes, but I wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friends.”
The interviewer asks him what punishment he should receive and Latarian offers a punishment very similar to Preston’s: “Just a little bit… no video games for a whole weekend.” In a longer version of this news story, now taken down, the camera focuses on a reporter who explains that the police plan to go forward with charges of grand theft against him. While he’s “too young to go into any type of juvenile facility,” he says, “police say they do want to get him into the system, so that they can get him some type of help.”
The implication here, of course, is that this child is not innocent or impetuous like Preston, he’s a pre-criminal who needs “some type of help.” The sooner they get Latarian into “the (prison?) system,” the better. No cotton candy kid this one.
Unfortunately, Latarian says all the right things to make the narrative fit. He says he likes to do “bad” things, calls himself a “hoodrat,” and seems unremorseful, even defiant, for at least part of the interview (he looks a bit sheepish in the end when he finds out his grandmother is going to have to pay for the damage he did to other cars).
One way to interpret this is to say that Latarian IS a pre-criminal. That he DOES need to get into the system because he’s clearly a bad kid. Someone inclined to believe that black people were, in fact, more prone to criminal behavior could watch these two videos and feel confirmed in their view.
But there is good evidence that people, beginning as children, internalize the stereotypes that others have of them. As Ann Ferguson shows in her book, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, black children, especially boys, are stereotyped as pre-criminals; not adorably naughty, like white boys, but dangerously bad from the beginning. And studies with children have shown that they often internalize this idea, as in the famous doll experiment in which both black and white children were more likely than not to identify the black doll as bad (see this similar demonstration of white preference on CNN and a discussion of the original doll experiment at ABC). So I think this terribly sad story of Latarian is showing us how children learn to think of themselves as deviant and bad from the society around them. Latarian, remember, is 7, just like Preston. They’re both children, but they are being treated very differently, as these programs illustrate, and it is already starting to sink in.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.