Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Kyle Kashuv won’t be going to Harvard next year. The young gun-rights activist and survivor of the February 14, 2018, Parkland school shooting that killed 17 of his schoolmates had his admission rescinded once Harvard learned that he had used racial slurs while editing a document shared with friends, including a reference to a black classmate as a “niggerjock.” Kashuv apologized for his past remarks, but also criticized Harvard for its own racist past, arguing that rejecting him was “deciding that someone can’t grow, especially after a life-altering event like the shooting.”

The news of Kashuv’s rescinded admission sparked anger on the right, where pundits such as Ben Shapiro accused Harvard of being “disgusting,” arguing that in “a normal world, [his apology] would have been enough.” Mainstream media outlets have been similarly enraptured with the story, which not only touches on recurring questions about redemption and forgiveness, but also fits neatly into the class concerns of the media elite. Newsrooms are more male, less diverse, and more educated than the American workforce at large, so the children of most journalists are unlikely to be the targets of racial slurs.

Young people are being more frequently deployed as advocates and symbols in American political disputes. Both right and left have their young champions, and both sides sometimes forget that, despite their presence in the public eye, these are, in fact, children. That perspective should not be lost in a haze of rage over their political advocacy. At the same time, to paraphrase James Baldwin, children may not listen to the adults in their lives, but they never fail to imitate them. Perhaps Kashuv’s remarks were just an example of a teenager pushing the limits of decency, as some teens are wont to do—or perhaps, like many of his peers, he perceives the essence of Trumpism to be something adults are loath to acknowledge. As Alex Pareene put it, “Teens, while quite good at figuring out ways to hurt people, are less skilled at plausible deniability.”

But even when children make mistakes, sometimes horrible mistakes that hurt others, that does not mean that they should be condemned to be pariahs for the rest of their lives. It also doesn’t mean that the consequences imposed on Kashuv for his remarks were disproportionate—Harvard has rescinded other offers of admission in similar circumstances, albeit with less fanfare. An apology, even a heartfelt one, does not mean one immediately gains back what was lost.

At National Review, David French argues that Kashuv’s rejection is an example of an ascendant and unforgiving cultural liberalism that is replacing the Christian forgiveness that preceded it. “I know how much a person can grow, and I know that adversity and mistakes are often the catalyst for growth,” French writes. “But woke culture has forgotten those lessons. Woke culture treats a teen like an adult and tries to crush his public reputation when his character is still in its infancy.”

French is right about the tenor of online discourse, which is largely about punishing and humiliating one’s enemies for the approval of one’s allies, a game no one who uses social media successfully avoids all the time. There is little room online for mercy, forgiveness, or respect. But that is largely a reflection of America’s culture of punishment, a culture whose mercilessness toward the young manifested itself in American law long before woke became an ironic term of derision in conservative circles. It is more correct to say that America’s punitive culture has only recently manifested itself in ways that affect the kinds of families who send their children to places like Harvard.

America asks a great deal of those children who are born into difficult circumstances, and punishes them brutally when they stumble. America asks very little of those born into lives of plenty or relative plenty, and offers them comfort when they fail. Yet the children America throws away are no less children than the ones it deems worthy of protection.

For starters, the United States currently employs a policy of systemic child abuse toward thousands of migrant children as a deterrent to illegal immigration. The Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era program that granted a temporary reprieve to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, making hundreds of thousands of people subject to exile from the only country they’ve ever known, because of the actions of their parents. The current administration not only treats being in the U.S. illegally as an unforgivable crime, but also transfers culpability from parents to children. As one of the president’s favorite Fox News personalities, Brian Kilmeade, put it, “These are not our kids.”

American children are not exempt from this punitive approach. Last year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked an Obama-era initiative designed to prevent racial discrimination in school punishment. To this day, Donald Trump maintains that the Central Park Five are guilty, despite DNA evidence exonerating them. As with all of Trump’s false claims, this one has produced a cottage industry of conservative pundits defending a Trumpian falsehood by endorsing the indefensible, in this case the use of confessions coerced from teenagers.

Yet America’s love affair with draconian punishment did not begin with Trump. More than a dozen states set no floor on the age at which they can try children in criminal court as adults, and more than 100,000 children are confined in adult prisons each year. The execution of minors was held to be unconstitutional only in 2005, and life without parole for juvenile offenders was found to be unconstitutional only in 2012. Both were 5–4 decisions, made over the objections of the high court’s conservatives. In both cases, former Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the Court’s Democratic appointees, much to the chagrin of conservative legal activists.

Sometimes kids commit serious crimes—out of fear, peer pressure, avarice, or even self-defense. Sometimes they are simply the wrong color, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Sometimes they just make mistakes. But one thing is certain: They are not adults, until the law decides that doesn’t matter.

Republicans bear a great deal of the blame, but America’s punitive culture is deeply bipartisan. It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who signed the 1994 crime bill authorizing the prosecution as adults of children as young as 13, and the current Democratic presidential front-runner, Joe Biden, who wrote it. Democrats such as Hillary Clinton seized on the racialized fear that some young Americans had become “superpredators,” remorseless killing machines who no longer needed to be treated like children. At the state and federal levels, lawmakers in both parties mobilized the punitive power of the state against children who, in their eyes, were irredeemable monsters. Adopting an unforgiving posture toward children—the “not our kids” kind of children—was part of how Democrats sought to shed the worrisome label that they were “soft on crime,” and may yet again, should the president prevail in 2020.  

The simple truth is that, for much of the American electorate, particularly those voters who rarely come into contact with the criminal-justice system, punishment is popular, and forgiveness is unpopular. The nation has been this way for decades, a global outlier in the length, conditions, and nature of the punishments it applies to both children and adults. Nor have many of those on the right demanding Harvard reverse its decision been particularly merciful to others. Gun-rights activists may be demanding forgiveness and understanding for Kashuv, but the NRA has been unrelenting in justifying the killing of black people by law enforcement, no matter how absurd the circumstances. Shapiro himself observed what would have been the 21st birthday of Trayvon Martin with a cruel joke, mocking a teenager who was stalked and killed by an adult with a firearm following a physical confrontation. Although he found Kashuv’s rejection from Harvard “disgusting,” he declared the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy with a toy gun who was killed by a police officer, “justified.” No, children should not pay for their errors by being punished for the rest of their lives, but neither should they forfeit those lives because an adult looks at them in fear.

As for Kashuv, he stands at a crossroads. He can choose a comfortable life in the public eye as a right-wing martyr to the cause of destigmatizing overt expressions of bigotry, an ideological project that has become increasingly urgent with the election of a Republican president for whom such expressions are common. Or he can reject that opportunity, reflect on his own conduct, and atone by choosing a different path. No one should spend adulthood paying for mistakes they made at 16, particularly not if they make amends.

But that ideal of charity should not begin and end with a young man denied admission to Harvard, or be offered exclusively to those children who remind the elite classes of themselves. Even a cursory glance at American law shows that some children can expect to receive only the rod, and others only the spoils. The children American society has traditionally considered “good kids” should not be the only ones who get the benefit of the doubt, or the only ones seen as worthy of mercy.

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