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Cyntoia Brown and the legacy of racism for children in the legal system

In 2004, 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown shot and killed a man who paid her for sex – a position she was forced into by an older man who took advantage of her. Brown never denied shooting the man (in fact, she was the one who called the police the next day), but she claimed it was an act of self-defense because she believed the man was grabbing a gun to shoot her. Brown was charged and convicted of aggravated robbery and first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 2017 her case gained national attention when celebrities and others petitioned for her clemency. In 2019 the Governor of Tennessee granted clemency and Brown was released from prison.

As a Black girl, Brown ’s case, and others like hers, ultimately reflect the legacy of racism in the United States—a long legacy that can shape the life trajectory of racial minority youth, leading them at a vastly disproportionate rate toward involvement in the legal system.

A history of race-based oppression, intergenerational trauma, and resulting poverty puts racial minorities at risk for becoming victims. Child sex traffickers prey on already-vulnerable child victims, convincing them that they have no other options in life than to sell their bodies and that no one else will want them. Brown’s childhood was difficult. She was in and out of the juvenile justice system and eventually ran away and began living on the streets. There she began a relationship with an older man who abused, raped, and sold her as a prostitute. She was manipulated and disparaged by this man, who told her “some people were born whores, and that [she] was one… and nobody’d want [her] but him.” Fearing the beating and rape she expected if she returned to her abuser without money, Brown stole from the man she shot in self-defense.

Once racial minority juveniles come into contact with the legal system, racism can exacerbate negative outcomes at many levels. For example, like laypeople, police officers’ stereotypes can influence how they perceive and respond to juveniles of color, including the way officers interrogate those suspected of committing crimes. Racial minorities suffer from the added stress and anxiety associated with stereotype threat (i.e., concerns about being stereotyped as criminal because of their race), which may impair their ability to understand their Miranda Rights and pressure them to waive their rights—exactly what Brown did. She did not understand the value of having an attorney during her initial interrogations.

Racism’s legacy has also been fear and suspicion—the fear that white Americans have of African Americans in particular, even youngsters. Compared to white adolescents, racial minorities are often perceived as older and more mature than they actually are, and they are in turn blamed more for their actions. Psychological research has established that cognitive and psychosocial development is not fully developed until adulthood, leaving youth of all races more likely to engage in impulsive, risky decision making without considering the long-term consequences of their actions. But whereas white juveniles’ actions may be attributed to these developmental limitations, minority youth do not receive the same benefit of the doubt. Brown was not only Black and mature looking, but she also suffered from vulnerabilities that further impaired her cognitive functioning: Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (a form of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), which impaired and delayed the development of various cognitive abilities, including her ability to control her behavior and to understand the consequences of her actions. She was cognitively not even as old as she actually was, and far younger than she appeared.

Not only are racial minority youth perceived as older and more culpable than white youth, but minority girls are stereotyped as promiscuous and deviant. As a result, girls of color who are subjected to sexual exploitation are often blamed for their own victimization and labeled as offenders, not victims. Moreover, when they are charged with crimes, they are also more likely to be tried in adult criminal court rather than a rehabilitation-oriented juvenile court. Brown’s case was no different—rather than consider her a child victim of sexual exploitation, Brown was labeled a teen prostitute and tried as an adult.

Cyntoia Brown’s case illustrates the multifaceted ways in which racism influences minority youth’s life experiences as well as their interactions with the legal system. Although much progress has been made to end racism in the United States, there is still much that needs to be done to ensure that all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, have an equal opportunity to live and thrive in society. Meanwhile, social science has much to offer in exposing the legacies of racism in the legal context, and developing ways to combat it.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Fifaliana-joy via Pixabay

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