Stop Criminalizing Children of Color for Being Children

It would be easy to characterize Ahmed Mohamed's arrest as a "bizarre aberration." One could imagine chalking it up to "crazy Texas," or worse, victim blaming. We should avoid such decontexualizations that disregard the importance of Ahmed's arrest. It didn't happen in a vacuum.
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Last week, Ahmed Mohamed, an unassuming 14-year-old Muslim boy took a homemade clock to school. He had wanted to make a good impression on his new teachers. Instead of praising his ingenuity, curiosity and drive, however, school officials in Irving, Texas had him placed in handcuffs, in front of his classmates. He was then driven to the police station where he was interrogated by law enforcement, without a lawyer or his parents. And despite the fact that Irving police now admit they knew the device was a clock at the time of Ahmed's arrest, he still somehow wound up being charged with a crime and locked up in a juvenile detention facility.

It would be easy to characterize this tragic event as a "bizarre aberration." One could imagine chalking it up to "crazy Texas," or worse, victim blaming. We should avoid such decontexualizations that disregard the importance of Ahmed's arrest. It didn't happen in a vacuum.

Ahmed Mohamed was the victim of (1) national, regional and local anti-Islamic sentiment; (2) a culture that criminalizes, discourages and deprives children of color of full participation in a host of normal childhood opportunities and experiences, such as science/engineering experimentation; 3) an education system that has become incredibly punitive and increasingly addresses the normal school behavior of students of color through the criminal justice system; and (4) a criminal justice and carceral system that is increasingly and regularly employed against children, especially children of color. To borrow a phrase of Ta-Nehisi Coates, all four of these biased systems "fell upon the body" of Ahmed Mohamed, the Sudanese teenager sporting a NASA t-shirt, who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school.

National, Regional and Local Anti-Islamic Sentiment

The mayor in Irving, Texas, Ahmed's hometown, made national news earlier this year for an anti-Islamic "speech" she gave, supporting a law that targeted Islamic temples by prohibiting them from participating in faith arbitration programs that other religions, such as Catholicism and Judaism, enjoy. In her speech, she encouraged suspicion of Muslims and noted, without any evidence, that Muslims in Texas are engaged in a conspiracy to hurt America from the inside out.

This racist, xenophobic and paranoid speech led to dozens of anti-Islam groups rallying to the Mayor's and City Council's support in expressly stigmatizing Islam-- claiming "this is America." In an Irving city meeting in April, a man defended the Mayor saying, "Islam's goal is to immigrate, assimilate and annihilate." In a nearby town, citizens and far-right politicians organized an event called the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest," to encourage Texans to draw deliberately offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a show of hostility toward Muslims. And Irving's mayor was eventually invited on Fox News "after her attacks on Muslims made her a hero."

The anti-Islamic hysteria that plagued Ahmed's hometown/region and led to the creation of laws specifically targeting Muslims surely effected how his teachers, principal and the police perceived him. In fact, when Ahmed was first brought before police, one officer remarked, "Yup. That's who I thought it was." And they publicly disregarded his explanation of the clock as "clearly suspect."

But Irving's anti-Islam and anti-Mosque hysteria is not unique. Instead, it exists in a national context. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is not difficult to come by, whether you turn on Fox News or listen to any number of elected Representatives (including those running for President). It's unfortunately prolific and so numerous that I didn't even bother to find examples. You can just Google it.

Outside of politics, is the manifestation of this sentiment through (culturally sanctioned) violence and scare tactics. Numerous Muslim mosques have been vandalized over the years. For example, in Oklahoma, one group threw bacon across a Mosque's doorway. Mosques in Virginia have been graffiti-ed with anti-Islamic and racist slurs.

This behavior has also been wielded against Sikhs, who are commonly and mistakenly subject to anti-Islamic sentiment and violence because of their use of turbans. For example, in 2012 a gunman killed six Sikh men inside their temple.

Just this year, a Sikh man was brutally attacked and told to "go back to his country."

This is but a handful of examples. There are also numerous internet memes, tropes, etc. revealing anti-Islamic sentiment. One meme circulated this week, on 9/11, encouraged Obama to deny his "fellow Muslims" from Syria safe-haven in the United States (which, by the way, many would be entitled to under our existing asylum laws). It read: "Hey Obama! This is not the week to convince Americans that Muslim refugees need our help! Let them stay where they are and do your job worrying about keeping Americans safe for once." In other words, people are encouraging the U.S. government to respond to one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history by completely ignoring its victims because...brown people. Because they're Muslim. Because they must be dangerous.

There is another meme titled "Obama's refugees" and the image is a picture of ISIS.

This is disgusting and it was this same type of racist xenophobia that led to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. We should be better than that.

A Culture that Criminalizes the Behavior of Children of Color and Deprives Them of Normal Childhood Experiences and Opportunities.

The other context that this incident exists within is the criminalization of STEM experimentation for students of color. For example, in Florida, a 16-year-old black girl was expelled, arrested and charged with a felony for weapons possession after a science experiment went awry (the chemicals didn't react as anticipated).

This, unfortunately, is fairly common and "STEM projects" can be now added to the long list of normal childhood activities that children of color may not participate in, inside and outside school, such as: Playing with toy guns (Tamir Rice), attending a pool party, wearing hoodies (Trayvon Martin), sleeping on the couch (Aiyana Jones), or knowing, with a fair degree of certainty, that when their parents leave the house, they will return home safely instead of being deported to another country (any undocumented child or child of undocumented parents).

Zero-Tolerance Policies and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Addressing School Behavior Through the Criminal Justice System

Anti-Islamic fervor and the over-sanctioning of childhood behavior alone, however, would not have led to Ahmed's arrest and detention. To understand that, we have to look at schools, who are increasingly turning to the criminal justice system to help "control" their students of color and to address behavioral and social conflicts that might be handled differently. For example:

Stephen Perry, now 18 years old, was trying to avoid a water balloon fight in 2013 when he was swept up by police at his Wake County, N.C., high school; he revealed he had a small pocketknife and was charged with weapons possession. Rashe France was a 12-year-old seventh-grader when he was arrested in Southaven, Miss., charged with disturbing the peace on school property after a minor hallway altercation.

In Texas, a student got a misdemeanor ticket for wearing too much perfume. In Wisconsin, a teen was charged with theft after sharing the chicken nuggets from a classmate's meal--the classmate was on lunch assistance and sharing it meant the teen had violated the law, authorities said.

This is part of a larger social and educational trend of over-punishing students of color. As the Atlantic noted: "Black and Latino students are much more likely to be disciplined and suffer greater rates of in- and out-of-school suspensions. . . . While black students represented 16 percent of the U.S. student population, they accounted for 32 percent of the students suspended and 42 percent of those expelled. Black students also experience the highest rate of multiple suspensions, the [Department of Education] data shows."

These disparities even extend to PRESCHOOLERS of color ("we're talking about four-year-olds people").

The discipline gap is not correlated with actual rates of "misbehavior" (in case that wasn't evident by posting about four-year-olds). In fact, multiple in-classroom studies have found that black/brown students do not "act out" or "misbehave" more than their white peers. Instead, what these studies found was that teachers were more likely to characterize black/brown behavior as "deviant" or "aggressive." This is an unfortunate result of preexisting racial/ethnic stereotypes that color the way in which behavior is perceived by educators.

To quote the Kirwan Institute, which studies trends in education: "Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons" by biased educators.

In other words, when a black/brown student behaves similarly to a white student, their behavior is more likely to be interpreted through the lens of racist stereotypes and assumptions of the decision maker, making normal behavior seem like dangerous rule-breaking. It's like a carnival mirror-- reality becomes distorted. In this case, the mirror is implicit bias, perverting the acts of students of color. When coupled with zero-tolerance policies for alleged rule-breaking, you create an educational system that regularly uses the harshest punishments available-- suspensions, expulsions or incarceration-- in a racialized manner. This may be intentional or unintentional, but that doesn't matter because the consequences are still the same-- disparate impact.

As applied to Ahmed Mohamed, his behavior (building a clock) was filtered through a lens which stereotyped Muslims as "terrorists" and "threatening," and his high school, like so many others, chose to address this "deviant" behavior through the criminal justice system.

The Criminal Justice and Carceral System are Being Routinely Employed Against Children of Color

The criminal justice and carceral system are regularly employed in the U.S. to address a host of social problems. We incarcerate high rates of individuals with mental health problems or drug addiction. The vast majority of our prisoners are indigent. These are economic and public health problems, not criminal issues. But we have lazily attempted to solve them through punitive measures-- by warehousing human beings en masse. This system is also disproportionately used against black/brown Americans, with prison also being a solution to the "race problem" in this country. These policies have led to the creation of a racialized prison system that incarcerates more individuals than any country in the world.

Just like we imprison more adults than any other country, the U.S. incarcerates more youth than any other nation in the world, 2/3 of whom are imprisoned for minor offenses. And this system, like its father, is completely racialized, with the majority of the children incarcerated being black or brown. This isn't because black and brown kids commit more "crimes" -- indeed, white youth "offend" at rates comparable to their black/brown counterparts. Instead, it is the criminal justice system that responds more harshly to "crimes" committed by children of color-- just like the school responds more harshly to behavior of children of color in the classroom.

Children of color are also more likely to be tried as adults, with the unfortunate result that they end up being released into a permanent underclass where they may be legally discriminated against in employment and housing, denied access to student loans, and generally denied the right to vote and serve on juries. This permanently disadvantages them.

This increase in the use of the criminal justice system inside and outside schools has led to a huge prison population of black/brown youths, which makes something like an arrest of a 14-year-old Muslim kid common-place.


All of these biased systems overlap and interlock to oppress and criminalize Islamic students, especially those participating in "dangerous" activities like engineering or electronics. Hence, the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed.

This is a systemic problem. And all of those who express outrage should think about the broader context that Ahmed's arrest occurred within and consider what we can do for all of our children of color. We should take this opportunity to have an honest conversation about Islamaphobia, xenophobia and racism, end zero-tolerance policies and the school-to-prison pipeline, create more compassionate/peaceful police forces trained in de-escalation instead of use of force, stop the trend of underserving poor and minority communities and address our bloated and racialized prison population.

We should also ask: why are the institutions and policies we support so cruel and unresponsive to problems? Why are we offering a one-size-fits-all solution (punishment through the criminal justice system) to a host of diverse social problems-- from education, lack of jobs and public health? And why is our solution so violent, dehumanizing, ineffective and inflexible? Are we punishing all of us? Until we address these issues and answer those questions, the U.S. will continue to criminalize thousands of children, like Ahmed, for being children-- to our moral, economic and competitive detriment.


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