We live in a time where we can accurately predict the risks and opportunities for many children. As surely as if we marked them at birth (or even before), we can identify who will likely succeed and who will likely fail by adulthood. Race and gender, alone and in combination, generate clear odds. Disparate risk generates a hierarchy of children, and we know who will be at the bottom. Children’s inequalities are linked to developmental supports for some children, coupled with not only the lack of support for others, but also the presence of barriers and challenges, designed for children to fail, not to succeed.
Children’s inequalities, by race and gender, are particularly evident in the life course of Black boys. Their patterns from birth to 18 are an example of similar patterns for other children at the bottom. I do not mean to suggest here a hierarchy of inequalities, but rather to use their life course to adulthood as an example of the marked outcomes for certain children. At birth, a Black baby boy has more than a one in three risk of being born into poverty. He has a one in two risk of never graduating from high school. And he has a one in three risk of being incarcerated in his lifetime, in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system. His risk of incarceration doubles if he is born at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. While he may transcend these risks, the trajectory funnels him toward failure and subordination, to the low end of what is a hierarchy of opportunity for kids.
These disparate negative risks to development are linked to systems that fail him: systems that do little to support, and much to undermine, his growth to his full potential. These are systems constructed and perpetuated by the state, at federal, state, and local levels, by the choice of policies despite the evidence of disparate, unequal outcomes along known, identifiable identity lines. Those systems include the poverty system (the clutch of policies that perpetuate poverty, and income inequality by race, rather than provide pathways out of poverty); the education system (highly segregated by race, disparate in resources and outcomes school-to-school, and especially negative in outcomes for Black boys), and the juvenile justice system (a largely boys’ system designed to punish and disadvantage for life rather than rehabilitate; and a sharply disparate system in every negative way for boys of color, particularly Black boys). In combination, these systems and others directly impact the lives of Black boys, their families, and their communities in negative ways that replicate inequality. The pattern is not merely one of insufficiency or inadequacy, but of barriers and harms.
The inequalities of Black boys are not unique. There are other children who are predictably at the bottom, that we expect to be there. And unequal hierarchies are not unique to American children. In many countries, data reveal which children are marked for failure. So, for example, in all countries in Europe in which they are present, Roma children are disproportionately poor, minimally educated, and jobless; the most unequal are Roma girls. Muslim children similarly are targeted in many European countries, as are migrant and refugee children.
How can we address these inequalities, and those of other identifiable groups of children who reach adulthood lacking in opportunity due to failed outcomes and barriers placed in their way? I propose that we have to think about these blatant inequalities differently, in order to craft meaningful change, by embracing a model I call “Developmental Equality.”