Tuesday, February 28, 2012

New Scholarship on Gender, Race, and the Juvenile Justice System

One of the aspects of being an academic that provides me with tremendous satisfaction is introducing the work of scholars new to the field of legal history. Two such scholars bring important new prospective to women’s legal history and are in dialogue with each other regarding the history of the juvenile justice system. The two works are also excellent examples of how we address the intersectionality of gender, race, and class.

Cheryl Nelson Butler of Southern Methodist University School of Law has recently completed her article, "Blackness as Delinquency: Child Savers, Racial Myths and the Juvenile Court." The article fills several gaps in the history of juvenile courts by examining the crucial role that the Black women’s club movement played in creating and critiquing juvenile courts from 1889 to 1930. The article makes two main arguments. First, from its inception, the juvenile courts perpetuated existing racial myths about Blackness and delinquency and enforced dominant attitudes of race and class stratification. Second, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) responded by placing criminal and juvenile justice issues as a major component of its civil rights agenda. The NACW’s efforts to challenge myths about Black delinquency affected the development of the juvenile court system and its jurisprudence. The NACW’s particular interest in juvenile justice sheds new light on how black women activists shaped the national discourse on race and crime and formulated their own strategies for juvenile justice reform.

Tera Eva Agyepong, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, presented work from her dissertation at the AHA meeting last month. Her work “Constructing the Black Juvenile Delinquent: African American Girls at the Illinois Training School for Girls at Geneva, 1893–1945” provides a case study of African American girls’ experiences at the Illinois Training School for Girls at Geneva between 1893 and 1945. It argues that intersecting notions of race and gender were embedded in constructions of innocence, delinquency, and rehabilitation in early juvenile justice institutions. Geneva's staff members masculinized black girls by excluding them from notions of femininity, racialized their sexuality by blaming them for the interracial sexual relationships the staff members abhorred, and segregated them from other girls in the institution. In the process, they created a race-specific construct of delinquency that excluded African American girls’ from new notions of protection and rehabilitation.

I also want to congratulate Mae C. Quinn on the publication of her article “Feminist Legal Realism” in the most recent issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender.