America, How Are the Children?

by | Aug 31, 2020 | In the News, Justice, Race

The Maasai is one of the most well-known African tribes. One aspect of their culture is its value of children. When Maasai people greet each other, they begin: “How are the Children?” The response is always: “All the Children are Well.” This exchange connotes an interest in peace and safety in the community, but also refers to the well-being of children, who always come first. The Maasai cannot be well as a people unless their children are well.

America could stand to learn from this value system. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that our children must be treasured, protected, and entrusted with our future. 

Over this past year, as many young people have experienced violence and police brutality. We have lost our way and let our children down. Six-year-old Gianna Floyd witnessed her father’s brutal murder last May in Minneapolis, and Jacob Blake’s four youngsters watched him being shot seven times in the back, as he walked away from policemen, On August 23, in Kenosha, WI. 

If a Maasai tribesperson walked onto our continent, they could not honestly say that the children are well. We Americans are failing them. 

In my home country of Haiti, from 1957-86, Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and his son Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) led a dictatorial regime rife with violence. Ultimately, a strong oppositional movement emerged and succeeded. My own father, a minister in the Duvalier regime, became a target. However, when members of the resistance arrived at our home before dawn one day, planning to torture or kill my father, they saw me, a three-year-old (just three years younger than Gianna Floyd), so they spared Dad and departed without incident. Although the civil war was bloody and violent, the children remained safe. Haitians understand the value of young people.

Today, we should be concerned that our children are confronted with the reality of death every day; senseless killings and suffering due to racial injustice that have become the norm in our land. 

This situation makes me wonder about America’s children. How do these visuals impact their collective conscience? How would America look if we could say, with conviction: “All the children are well”?

As a young Black Catholic in America, my head is spinning and my heart is aching. Often, I ask myself if America really demonstrates care and concern for God’s children, particularly Black children. 

Once again, the Black community is suffering at its very core, an issue that is magnified in negative interactions with white police. The way police officers treat Blacks today will be the way our society acts tomorrow. As James Baldwin eloquently wrote, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.“ Case in point: Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Illinois, shot several people with a semi-automatic rifle in the name of “protecting” a business. 

America, we ought to recognize that we failed to protect our children and often ignore the need for their safety. As Jacob Blake’s mother told Don Lemon on CNN, other countries are laughing at us. Perhaps we could learn something from the international community.

In many nations, the presence of children serves as protective shields for adults, even during wartime. On the contrary, in modern-day America, children watch videos exposing violent interactions between police officers and Black people, and the more they see, the more normal this behavior seems.

Perhaps, we should ask ourselves, how do we want to be remembered by our children? What does the image of a 17-year-old boy with an AR-15 mean to us? How will children regard their father, the symbol of protection and authority in a household, after they see him shot in the back by a police officer?  Where is our sense of human decency to still handcuff a paralyzed Black man in a hospital bed after four days?

America, we have forgotten to take care of our most vulnerable. Whatever we say about love for our children, our behavior demonstrates neglect. With a minimal display of human decency, or Christian responsibility, we seem to forget that children lives matter and being anti-abortion is just a start. 

Children are even more fragile than adults when they lack adequate healthcare, nutrition, and shelter. Negative experiences can cause lifelong trauma in younger people. This in turn results in a traumatic society. We must shelter them from extreme violence and racism. As Pope Francis said, “A society which abandons children severs its roots and darkens its future.”

What happened to Gianna Floyd and Jacob Blake’s children should serve as a cautionary tale for America. Adults must heed the call to redefine its behavior toward our children and reset its priorities. We should reconsider what really matters for the future of America. Protecting all children, especially Blacks, from racial injustice is a pro-life obligation for all Christians and a moral mandate for every adult in this country. The year 2020 should be the time that calls our collective conscience to a spiritual conversion that does our children justice. 

I wonder how it would feel if each time a police officer interacted with a Black person, they asked, “How are the children?” And what if they waited before shooting, just to hear: “All the children are well.” Just as the Maasai people know that their well-being depends on that of the children, my prayer is that one day, America will value and protect her children as if her ‘Greatness’ and her ‘Soul’ depended on it.


Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ   /   All posts by Patrick