Jeff Flake and Paul Ryan really shouldn’t have. The outgoing Arizona senator recently posted a photo on his Twitter feed showing him and an adorable baby sharing a moment. “Politics can be fleeting, but families are forever,” Flake wrote. Flake’s tweet prompted a flood of angry responses: “Right up until they’re separated at the border,” “Imagine fearing for your life and taking that baby to somewhere you thought was safe. And then they rip baby from your arms,” “Did you go to the @IvankaTrump school of public relations?” Then, on Saturday, Paul Ryan tweeted a Father’s Day sentiment—”My life changed the day I became a father”—which made Twitter see red all over again.
“They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” the president warned about the group he called “alien minors” last month. Trump was warning listeners not to think of migrant children as kids—not like “our” children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbors. Although, sniffing the political wind, he later distanced himself from his administration’s family separation policy, he was at his most honest in that moment. Because in the United States, we have unequal childhoods: one imagined sanctuary space of innocence, love, and learning, reserved for upper- and middle-class white kids like the ones related to Republican politicians, and an uncertain fate for everyone else.
Like so many cruelties that have intensified under Trumpism, the idea that only white American children are truly “innocent” and worthy of protection isn’t his invention—it’s just subtext, made text. As historian Tera Hunter wrote in the New York Times, “child-snatching” has a long history in the United States. Black parents in slavery and Native American parents facing white colonialism had children sold, killed, or put into boarding schools and re-educated out of their culture. “Nits make lice,” Col. John Chivington is supposed to have said before the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864, when his soldiers killed a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho, women, children, and all. Part of the rationale for these atrocities was that these children are not really children, in the way white people understand it—those families were not really families, and those people were not really people.
We don’t have slavery or child labor anymore (though just wait), but we kept the culture that gifts some children more childishness than others. “By the mid-nineteenth century, sentimental culture had woven childhood and innocence together wholly,” historian Robin Bernstein writes. “This innocence was raced white.” Nor did this idea change after the end of slavery. Bernstein analyzes the figure of the “pickaninny,” a caricature with origins in Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s child character Topsy. Bernstein describes theatrical productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that paired “angelic white children” with “pickaninnies so grotesque as to suggest that only white children were children.” Pickaninnies were trickster figures, “odd and goblin-like” (as Harriet Beecher Stowe described Topsy)—knowing too much, instead of too little.
In the course of the refinement of the pickaninny caricature in American culture, humorous postcards joked about black children being used as “alligator bait.” The “alligator bait” stories that circulated in newspapers at the time, and that are probably folklore, often included mention of a willing mother lending her child to alligator hunters, for a price. The slanderous implication was that the black family didn’t value its children—so why should white people?
This adultification of black and brown kids has been durable across our history. Contemporary researchers have found that black kids of school age—both boys and girls—are perceived as older, more knowledgeable, more independent. This misperception is dangerous, as when a police officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, later reporting the shooting of a “20-year-old” suspect. Even when not deadly, the misperception brings new trauma to nonwhite children’s lives. Witness the recent cellphone footage of Michael Thomas Jr., a 10-year-old Chicago boy, handcuffed by police in a case of mistaken identity or older recordings of Dajerria Becton, the 15-year-old girl a cop slammed to the ground at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, in 2015. Even as these children encountered police, they showed they were children: Thomas was so scared that he wet his pants; Becton cried for her mother.
America is the only country that hasn’t ratified the U.N.’s almost 30-year-old Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on signatories to protect children from child marriage and forced labor, and provide them with the right to legal representation, good education, and quality health care. (The convention also contains a provision on separation, stipulating that states “shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.”) Democratic and Republican presidents alike have resisted ratification (even Barack Obama, who called our nonratification “embarrassing” in 2008 on the campaign trail). We’d need two-thirds of senators to ratify, and the treaty is politically toxic because of concerns about national sovereignty.
Whatever the reasons for our failure to ratify, we don’t meet the standards set by the treaty, and black and brown children suffer most from it. In 2016, 41 percent of American children lived in low-income households; rates of poverty were higher for Native American, black, and Hispanic kids. Our country is the only country to sentence offenders under the age of 18 to life in prison without parole. Mass incarceration affects black and brown and poor children disproportionately, when their parents go to prison; contrary to the Trump administration’s position, that’s a tragedy, too.
We’re not even that committed to providing certain protections for white American kids. The right sneers at the very idea of childhood trauma (“buck up, snowflake”), even when it’s experienced by suburban, privileged kids like the Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivors. Gun rights for adults are more important than the rights of kids at Sandy Hook to live or the rights of today’s kindergarteners not to have to experience the trauma of active-shooter drills. Some on the right will invent conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook’s very existence in order to avoid admitting this fact to themselves; others fall back on the “toughen up” defense, telling everyone who will listen that kids who are scared just need to realize that hey—the world is hard. Given that the right remains unmoved by white American kids’ impassioned claims to physical safety and feelings of security, it’s easy to see how commenters on social media could take a look at a horrifying detention center for migrant children, like the one MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff toured recently, and say things like “These kids are getting meals, shelter, and food—and babysitters!” Unmoved by our psychological arguments about the trauma of separation, such defenders of Trump can read stories like 5-year-old José’s and shrug their shoulders; he’ll get over it, or he won’t.
Sorry, Sen. Flake: Politics and childhood don’t exist in separate spheres. That’s a mirage for the privileged. Although we’re extremely sentimental about the idea of childhood, we don’t have much of a consensus on what rights children should have, just for being children. A decision to provide every kid with the things we know they need—quality day care and quality schools; healthy food and enough of it; good medical care; shelter from violence; a minimal share of trauma, stress, and fear—would mean a commitment to a broader anti-racist, intergenerational vision of human rights. And that’s a commitment we’re just not willing to make.