The Mass Incarceration Crisis Reaches Sesame Street

Sesame Street is talking to kids about incarceration and I don’t know how I feel about it.

On the one hand, as a brown kid growing up in 1980s Central California with a stay-at-home dad (something my Mexican-American family still hasn’t gotten over), Sesame Street was an oasis of affirmation and tolerance. 

But as an adult who works on mass incarceration issues, I’m torn between loving Sesame Street’s affirmation of kids with incarcerated parents and taking issue with the explanation that parents are in jail because they broke the “adult rules,” aka laws. 

I want Sesame Street to talk about the link between incarceration and racism – especially systemic racism.  Is that asking too much? 

The Snuffaleupagus in the Room

I know the information I take in everyday – about private prisons profiting off of black and brown people, or the stories of parents whose kids are locked up – is too much some days even for me to process, much less a child.

But I also distinctly remember being a kid and very clearly understanding that people are treated differently in the US, and in ways that obviously correlate to the color of their skin, the language they speak, etc.

I know that my parents, especially my dad, and plenty of other parents of my black and brown friends talked to their kids about race. 

They had to, not only because it was a basic survival strategy, but also because kids ask a lot of questions and my parents wanted my brother and me to benefit from knowledge they didn’t get. 

Everyone’s Dad Goes to Jail…Right?

When my dad was growing up in the predominantly black and Latino projects in Fresno’s “Golden West Side” (as he likes to call it), he thought everyone’s dad went to prison, even multiple times like my grandfather did.  

It wasn’t until many years later that he realized having a parent routinely incarcerated was not the norm for white families, especially those in more affluent neighborhoods. 

That kind of normalization worries me, because it keeps us from examining and questioning the way our society is organized.

According to nonprofit research group Justice Strategies, more than 1.7 million children nationwide have lost a parent to incarceration.  It’s not just dads, either, given that the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 400% since 1986. 

And the racial disparities of the mass incarceration crisis hold true for children, too: Justice Strategies estimates one in four black children will lose a parent to prison by age 14 compared to one in 25 white children. 

A landmark Harvard study recently concluded that one of the most important factors in a happy, fulfilled life is warm relationships, especially with your mother.  

Not surprisingly, kids with incarcerated parents often struggle to establish trusting, close relationships and stable adult lives.

That’s a lot of diminished or destroyed lives, especially considering that many adults currently in prison are serving time for non-violent drug offenses or technical violations like missing a check in with a probation officer.

These issues are more effectively addressed with alternatives to incarceration – alternatives that would also keep kids and parents together.  Had those kinds of commonsense alternatives been in place, maybe Sesame Street would never have mentioned incarceration at all. 

Love and Affirmation: More than Coping Strategies

Looking through the Sesame Street incarceration toolkit brought tears to my eyes.  I want every child to feel loved and affirmed. 

But I don’t want love and affirmation to be just a way to cope with and even accept structural violence and racial injustice. 

I want love and affirmation to be the basis for raising a generation that will know how to deconstruct the broken system and build something new in its place that affirms all life.

And I want policies and policymakers that consider the impact of incarceration on people and their families, instead of the impact on profit.

Then maybe we can finally stop asking where Sesame Street is and just live there already. 

Do you think Sesame Street should talk about race if they’re going to talk about incarceration?  What resources have you seen or used for talking to children about racism, especially structural racism?  Please share in the comments below.

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