Who gets to be a kid?

Young people of colour are perceived as ‘more adult’ than their peers - often with devastating consequences.

This is an article from the sixth issue of the New Economics Zine. You can find the full issue here.

Currently, police are approximately seven times more likely to stop and search Black people, and six times more likely to strip search Black children. 78% of those listed on the Metropolitan Police’s gangs matrix are Black, and Black people are over five times more likely than white people to have force used against them. There is a worrying pattern of the expansion of police powers through pre-criminalising orders such as criminal behaviour orders, knife crime prevention orders and serious violence reduction orders, all for crime prevention tactics that don’t work, and instead come at a great cost to minority ethnic communities who are directly harmed by these practices.Young people are disproportionately targeted and forced through our broken criminal justice system at a great cost to them, their futures, and their communities. How can it be that the institutions that are supposed to keep our young people safe are doing the opposite? And why is it that young people of colour are bearing the brunt of this harm?

The lack of safeguarding concerns for these young people is in part due to racialised bias amongst state forces, which often shows its form in the adultification of minority ethnic children. Adultification can be understood as instances in which notions of innocence and vulnerability are not afforded to certain children”, namely young people that are racialised and/​or from working-class and marginalised communities.

The narrative persists that young minority ethnic people can be supported through tough on crime’ policies, which directly harm and alienate them. This is a continued dereliction of the state’s duty to keep children safe and it does nothing to consider the complex social issues which are often the root causes of crime. Instead, youth violence is framed around racialised tropes that feed moral panic about gangs’, knife crime’ and county lines’.

At what point is anyone considering how we can actually support young people and children who are often forced into criminal activity because of their material conditions? As we know, austerity has resulted in 70% cuts to youth services in the last 13 years, real terms spending cuts to mental health services, and a cost of living crisis that disproportionately impacts racialised groups. The state has effectively abdicated its responsibility to provide young, working class, and otherwise marginalised people with a safe and secure future.

Adultification is a constant thread which enables this continued harm.”

Adultification is a constant thread which enables this continued harm. The damage inflicted is perpetuated and justified because minority ethnic children aren’t viewed as vulnerable or in the same need of protection as others. Instead, because of racialised tropes, they are seen as more adult’ or more threatening’ than other children. The abhorrent rates of strip searches conducted on minority ethnic children without the due safeguarding measures is a troubling illustration of this, whereby children are repeatedly failed by the state institutions which are supposedly there to protect them. This bias is not new — it’s been upheld for decades to curb the rights of young minoritised ethnic people to state protection and care when navigating the criminal justice system.

Young children of colour are experiencing traumatising incidents of racial stereotyping, including violent and intimate searches of their person, which impacts both their emotional wellbeing and relationship to services which in theory are there to protect them. Young Black people in particular have alarmingly low levels of trust in the police, with only 36% of them feeling like they can trust the police overall.

The harrowing case of the Manchester 10, a group of young black boys from the north-east, who were served a collective punishment of 131 years in prison for text messages, exemplifies the severity of the impact of adultification. Following the murder of their friend, youth leader and aspiring rapper Alexander John’ Soyoye in November 2020, the boys joined an online chat via Telegram venting their anger and grief at such a significant loss. Although none of the ten were involved in revenge attacks, the supposed organiser of the group chat was, leading to an investigation of the messages.

All of these boys were sentenced for conspiring to commit acts of harm, including murder. Rooted in adultification and the racial stereotyping of young Black boys we all know too well, the Manchester 10 were painted as a gang’ with intent to cause grievous bodily harm — an entirely false narrative. They are just young boys, grieving their friend. The continual targeting of young black kids, with no regard for their safeguarding or the needs of their families who have likely experienced similar treatment, carries deep intergenerational trauma.

The disconnect between our communities, young people and the police will become further entrenched with the ramping up of stop and search, strengthening the mistrust of British police forces many of us have had for decades. We need to see our government respond to increasing calls to limit the scope of policing and instead channel investment into people’s wellbeing and communities. In a climate in which young people of colour are experiencing higher levels of serious mental health distress — including conditions like schizophrenia and PTSD — why double down on powers which harm them? Instead, we must give young people of colour the care they need.

Hannah Francis is a research analyst working on numerous major projects and ongoing programmes across the Runnymede Trust.

Image: iStock/​izusek

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100