The Spirit of (White) Youth in the City?

Khalil Gibril Muhammad (NYPL)

Khalil Gibran Muhammad (NYPL)

On Wednesday evening, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, spoke to a group of students and faculty here at Ramapo College about the history behind the use of criminal justice as a system of racial control.

One part of the talk looked at the ideas about race and delinquency that came out of the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, which used statistics about rates of imprisonment to characterize black youth as particularly violent and unlawful. (These kinds of statistics are still being cited uncritically.) The assumption was that the criminal justice system was even-handed when making arrests and thus the disparity between the percentage of blacks in prisons and the percentage in the general population reflected an unbiased truth about African-Americans. This led to calls for blacks, even from black intellectuals like W. E. B. DuBois, to regulate their own behavior and take responsibility for their actions. Black criminality and delinquency were perceived as moral failings, blamed either on the criminal or his or her parents.

An 1895 summary of nationalities in the Hull-House neighborhood of Chicago.

Muhammad tellingly contrasted this view with the way that many of the same Progressives, Jane Addams included, looked at white crime. Settlements were established in areas with high poverty and crime, but in the early years of the movement, most settlements were founded in urban immigrant neighborhoods.

Most either refused entry to African-Americans, or set up settlement houses in African-American neighborhoods to serve them. Despite Jane Addams’ support for racial equality, Hull-House was segregated until the 1930s, well after the neighborhood’s African-American population had increased.  A recollection by Florence Scala, who attended Hull-House activities in the 1930s was that there was a great mix of ethnic groups there, “however, there were no blacks, blacks were not active in the Hull-House programs when I was going there.” (Near West Side, p. 139.)

Hull-House workers did help found two African-American settlements in Chicago–the Frederick Douglas Center (1904), an integrated settlement located in an African-American neighborhood in the Second Ward, and the Wendell Phillips Settlement (1908), a segregated house also located in an African-American neighborhood in the west side of Chicago.

A Hull-House playground. (news.uic.edu)

Addams’ views on the juvenile delinquency are found most clearly in her 1909 The Spirit of Youth in the City Streets. Addams chronicles the stories of Hull-House neighbors, who were overwhelmingly white immigrants, depicting the causes of crime in far more sympathetic terms:

“A certain number of the outrages upon the spirit of youth may be traced to degenerate or careless parents who totally neglect their responsibilities; a certain other large number of wrongs are due to sordid men and women who deliberately use the legitimate pleasure-seeking of young people as lures into vice. There remains, however, a third very large classes for which the community as a whole must be held responsible. . . traceable to a dense ignorance on the part of the average citizen as to the requirements of youth, and a persistent blindness on the part of educators as to youth’s most obvious needs.” (p. 51)

Delinquent youth, Addams argued, “are overborne by their own undirected and misguided energies.” Young minds were often too immature to avoid “an accidental combination of circumstances” that might entice a youth to crime. Addams argued that the environment of the city, “its thronged streets, its glittering shops, its gaudy advertisements of shows and amusements,” lead young men to seek “adventures,” which often turn into criminal charges.  Addams claims that other crimes could also be seen as “illustrating the spirit of adventure, for although stealing is involved in all of them, the deeds were doubtless inspired much more by the adventurous impulse than by a desire for the loot itself” (pp. 54-56).

This is not the way black crime was discussed.

When Progressives looked to immigrant neighborhoods, they saw society’s flaws acted out in juvenile delinquency–child labor, poor housing and education, poverty, and a lack of public entertainments.  Fixing the problems did not start with the individual or with the immigrant community itself. Addams called for education as the only means of:

organizing a child’s activities with some reference to the life he will later lead and of giving him a clue as to what to select and what to eliminate when he comes in contact with contemporary social and industrial conditions” (p. 109-110).

Addams and other Progressives saw that when groups of people had trouble adjusting to society, it might be that society had to change or adapt. We are undergoing another period in which we need to address the social problems of inequality and the lack of opportunity, especially with regard to race and the criminal justice system. The first step is understanding how we got here.


For more, see

Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, (1909)

Carolyn Eastwood, Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago’s Maxwell Street Neighborhood (2002), 139-40.

Khalil Muhammad’s “Playing the Violence Card,” New York Times, April 5, 2012.

Wanda A. Hendricks, Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois (1998), pp. 56-59.

Bill Moyers interview with Khalil Gibran Muhammad from 2012 on “Confronting the Contradictions of America’s Past.”

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