Merlene Davis: UK Law conference explores dangers of black childhood

Law professor Anthony Paul Farley
Law professor Anthony Paul Farley

If you take a few minutes to discuss the state of black childhood in America with Anthony Paul Farley, you will walk away both depressed and comforted.

As the James and Mary Lassiter Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, Farley offers numerous examples showing that the hopes of and for black children are thwarted by the twin walls of racism and impoverishment. Poverty doesn't just happen, he said, it is caused, and children become its casualties.

But then Farley will comfort you by pointing out the fixes are readily available and the laborers are plentiful. We simply have to be willing to change our focus and expectations.

"There is a part of us in this country that would like to get well," he said. "Very few people say they want to get worse.

"America is only about two minutes old," he continued. "Part of growing up is understanding that we are complicated. Improvements mean asking questions."

As a means of helping us get well, Farley has brought a group of nationally and internationally renowned law professors and activists with expertise in racial and sexual profiling, the school to prison pipeline, the incarceration of parents, and the drug war to the UK campus for the 2014 Lassiter Conference.

Titled "Freedom from Fear: On Black Childhood and Other Dangers," the one-day conference is meant to stimulate conversation, Farley said.

"I took my theme from FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt)," he said. "We think of him as having saved the country."

In 1941, FDR said democracy is built on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. If we want a decent society, Farley said, those freedoms are essential.

Unfortunately, America prosecutes juveniles as adults and then puts them in adult confinement where many are used for sexual slavery, he said.

"We make jokes about it. It's not funny. It is sick."

We have a war on drugs that snags black and brown people even though drug use and distribution does not vary by race. "What varies is the enforcement practices," said Farley, who is a former prosecutor. "I did see close-up that we were damaging the community with our efforts."

Our schools are also failing black children, who too often attend low-achieving schools or are taught by teachers with low expectations.

"It is not difficult to have proper schools," he said. "It is difficult to change expectations."

No one, he said, approaches the student in "ghetto" schools saying you can't teach them basketball. No one says because they come from single-parent households or have bad shoes or are on free or reduced-price lunch programs that they can't play basketball and play it well. In fact, he said, they expect more from those students than from students who are better off and living comfortably.

"We need very, very little to successfully teach children," he said. "I think that more than any other group, (black parents) put a high value on education."

Parents, community groups and churches need to put more emphasis on reading, he said. "We have institutions that we control and lots of volunteers," Farley said. "If the grown-ups are there and can read, there is no reason not to teach others to read both secular and non-secular material."

Our children are suffering, and we should be doing better by them.

"Black childhood is in danger," he said. "What is freedom of speech without the right to an education? What is freedom of worship amidst nihilistic erasures of black childhood? What is freedom from want when most of black childhood is lived below the poverty line? What is freedom from fear when black childhood is itself feared?"

"We are scared of black children," he said. "How we treat children is incredibly important. There are ways in which we intentionally hurt ourselves by hurting other people."

But it doesn't have to be that way. Black children shouldn't be the most despised and feared. They should have the freedom to be children.

It is up to us adults to see that that happens.