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  • The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender and Delinquency in Chicago's Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945 by Tera Eva Agyepong
  • Toby Rollo
The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender and Delinquency in Chicago's Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945.
By Tera Eva Agyepong.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. xvi + 180 pp. Paper $24.95, e-book $18.99.

Tera Agyepong's book The Criminalization of Black Children is a genuine contribution to and an outstanding example of historical scholarship. Agyepong [End Page 137] argues that when black children migrated north to Chicago in the wake of abolition, they encountered a fledgling set of juvenile justice and child-welfare institutions that gradually adopted differential treatment toward black and white youth. One of the many highlights of Agyepong's work is the use of case studies of particular children to illustrate how institutions shifted their conceptions and treatment of children in an attempt to distance white youth from the conditions of newly freed black youth.

The first two chapters introduce readers to the moment in the late nineteenth century when popular ideals of childhood innocence informed the development of juvenile justice. It was not long after the arrival of black children from the South that the qualified sentencing and numerous sites of rehabilitation for youth became functionally denied to black children, leaving black communities to form their own networks of support and care. In chapter 3, Agyepong argues that white girls in these systems benefited from notions of innocence and vulnerability that were denied to black girls, who were treated as deviant and beyond rehabilitation. Likewise, in chapter 4, Agyepong explains how black boys were constructed as inherently criminal and, again, beyond rehabilitation. As a contribution to the literature on intersectional approaches to institutional racism, the book offers rich corroboration of the lived experience of black boys and girls as well as providing empirical support for long-standing abstract theories of structural racism.

As with all historical work, the choice of where one begins does shape the argument. Agyepong begins with early-nineteenth-century shifts in social constructions of childhood and explores how those conceptions were deployed in the work of child-saving movements. The era of child saving, along with the discovery of childhood innocence, are common and very productive starting points, but they also involve certain hazards that Agyepong does not fully navigate. One significant problem in appealing to the discourses of childhood innocence is the risk of conflating the many distinct and sometimes conflicting notions of innocence found in law, various branches of philosophy, theology, and literature. Any attempt to deduce the legal realities or lived experiences of childhood from complex popular discourses of innocence must take care to disaggregate these different notions. Agyepong does at times presuppose a more unified notion of childhood innocence and this has some minor implications for her argument.

A number of distinct ideals of innocence feature in historical conceptions of childhood, each with their own specific connotations: legal (presumption of innocence: ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat); moral (virtuous); sexual (chastity, purity); physical (diminutive, vulnerable); epistemological [End Page 138] (ignorance); and theological (without sin or evil). Historians of childhood must be careful to disaggregate these and other ideals to expose how they serve to both secure and compromise the safety of gendered and racialized groups. Since at least the seventeenth century, for example, the sexual innocence of young girls was the leading pretense behind popular sexual fetishization of female children, fantasies of violation, and an aesthetic of sexual purity in art and popular culture. Moreover, and paradoxically, the same fetishization of sexual innocence informed the oppressive Victorian obsession with chastity. And so, for centuries, extremely high rates of sexual abuse in white society went virtually ignored, all while civil society was enforcing a tyrannical regime of chastity and virtuous conduct on young girls. Likewise, in the seventeenth century, racialized indigenous children were deemed epistemologically innocent (i.e., ignorant rather than corrupt) and were, as a result, forcibly removed from their communities to be placed in draconian boarding and residential schools designed to "kill the Indian in the child." The point here is that in those...