Nicole Y. Culliver, PhD. is a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project and The National Black Child Develop Institute.
As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leads the charge in trying to regulate middle school curriculum to teach students that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” his main target is young Black children who will be most impacted by this false rhetoric and revisionist history. This erasure is another act of stealing the innocence that Black children were never given.
Black children remain silenced and stuck in the time warp of old slave practices that permeate many American systems with treatment standards that vary little from those used during slavery. DeSantis is using such practices and in essence is robbing young Black children of their identity.
To say Black childhood innocence is lost may be a misstatement, because Black children's innocence was never established, because it was stolen at the inception of American slavery. A declaration in government policy and early care organizational policies are needed to recognize that Black children are innocent and must explicitly recognize the Black child.
Black children were never seen as innocent children, and—like Black men and women—they were seen as property for financial gain and treated like animals. The information on Black childhood slavery has been little to none, as if it has been kept secret because of the theft. Black children worked in a variety of labor jobs as young as four years old and as caregivers and companions for white children and other slave children on the plantation until the slave owner decided for them to go work in the fields where they put in equal hours as adults. This cruelty was the norm and accounts for stolen innocence that has remained lost to the Black child.
American consensus is that children and the early childhood years are essential in setting the foundation for a healthy adulthood. We saw this first push in the 60’s with the government's head start program which was initiated as an community outreach program launching early development centers across the country for young children living in poverty.
Currently, this government program often finds bipartisan support and continues helping many American children by addressing some of their basic needs, especially those living in poverty. In addition, early care funding across states has become a mainstay in budgets, giving credence that the innocence of childhood and the well-being of the youngest Americans is a thing. However, these initiatives were created for the mainstream child and children living in poverty. While society has juxtaposed the mainstream child innocence and child living in poverty, the Black child is essentially nonexistent.
A recent experimental viral video demonstrates that many still don't see the Black child as innocent. The video shows two children, one white and one Black, standing alone in downtown New York to see if people would help them. While the white child received help and comfort, the Black child received none. She was rendered invisible.
Over the years, research has exposed this stolen innocence throughout different American systems where Black children's innocence is ignored and defaulted to the original slave system practices of our country. One example is the consistent practice of the adultification of Black children. Juvenile Court Statistics found within the U.S. 52.5 percent of black youth were transferred to the adult system by Juvenile Judges four times more that of white youth, despite being only 14 percent of the overall youth population.
America's healthcare system's oath to not harm consistently mistreats Black pediatric patients who are often given less pain medication for the same treatment as their counterparts. School systems have been harshly criticized for the disproportionately high rate of school suspension for Black kindergarten boys, calling it the gateway of the preschool to prison pipeline.
There is no racial justice currently for the protection or acknowledgment of Black children's innocence. It's time we recognize and find the lost innocent identity of the Black child.