The Black Child Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice by Geoff K. Ward (review)
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The Black Child Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice. By Geoff K. Ward. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012. viii + 336 pp. Illustrations, tables, notes, and index. $90 cloth, $30 paper or e-book.

It is nearly impossible to read American juvenile justice historiography from any period in its half century of existence without noticing the influence of contemporaneous issues. Just as the first generation of juvenile justice scholars drew inspiration from anti-institutional reformers and children’s rights advocates in the 1960s and 70s, a more recent crop of studies has grown from longstanding concerns about racial and ethnic discrimination in juvenile justice. The ongoing campaign led by reform organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund against the “school-to-prison pipeline” has decried the denial of childhood protections to African American and Latino youth, focusing particularly on discriminatory practices in the public education and juvenile justice systems. In turn, historians of juvenile justice increasingly have explored the questions of when and why these practices emerged. In The Black Child Savers, sociologist Geoff K. Ward offers a significant contribution to this scholarship, one that is national in scope and broad in its chronological and geographic sweep. As the title suggests, the book’s main protagonists are several generations of black reformers, from the 1890s to the 1970s, who have fought for equal treatment of black youth and, importantly, the democratic participation of black experts and community advocates in the administration of “juvenile justice,” broadly construed to include programs and institutions that antedated the formal emergence of the juvenile court as well as related programs that typically are not included in the category of juvenile justice.

Ward argues that while race has been invisible in much of juvenile justice historiography, it stood front and center in the thinking of white Northern reformers who excluded or limited black access to nineteenth-century juvenile reformatories, houses of refuge, and child welfare agencies. Where these programs emerged in the South, both before and after the Civil War, black participation was unsurprisingly non-existent, and instead was characterized [End Page 177] by incarceration or forced labor systems. These patterns persisted into the juvenile court era of the early twentieth century, but not without resistance from black clubwomen, whom Ward describes as a “vanguardist” movement (p. 127) spurred by black uplift ideology and limited in political and economic capital. Their focus generally was to win access for black juveniles to the new treatment-oriented services afforded by the juvenile court, juvenile detention, and juvenile probation in the Progressive Era. Disparate national organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Negro Improvement Association each adopted resolutions calling for such access. Meanwhile, local and statewide reformers fought for inclusion. Ward briefly describes campaigns in several Southern states in the early twentieth century, suggesting that this wave of black child saving enjoyed little immediate success but planted the seeds for an “oppositional consciousness” (p. 155) that would bloom in the civil rights era.

Black intellectuals and professionals took this activism one step further during the middle decades of the twentieth century, pushing not only for black youth access to juvenile justice but also for wider black community involvement in the governance of juvenile justice. The cast of characters in this story includes W. E. B. DuBois, who wrote about race and juvenile justice in The Crisis; Charles Johnson, the sociologist who published a key study of race and juvenile justice in New York City in 1927; Judge Jane Bolin, who served as a domestic relations judge in New York City (and the first African American judge in the United States) from 1939 to 1979; and Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the Columbia University psychologists whose research figured prominently in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and who led an ill-fated anti-delinquency community action program in Harlem in the 1960s and 70s. Ward describes how attempts through the federal courts to institutionalize black access and participation in juvenile justice were only partially successful, achieving a superficial “distributive” form of racial justice by the 1970s...


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