Coping with changes that keep taking place at a rapid pace, in practically all walks of life, seems to be the challenge faced by people of all ages. This is more sharply felt in a country like the United States, where people of varied ethnic origins try to co-exist as amicably away as possible. In this kind of environment, children of African American origin face challenges that are a lot more complex. The existence of these children cannot be looked at in isolation since they are an integral part of American society. Of course, there has been a significant elevation in their quality of life, considering the political strife and social ostracism that was part of their lives in the past.
Since the focus of this paper is the maltreatment of immigrant children in American society, particularly in a city like LA, it is relevant to mention a few studies and theories on social behavior. Themes like nature or nurture, free will and determinism, and the relationship between the individual and the culture of a society are vital issues. There is constant debate on how culture, with all its (restrictive) norms and values, ensures that children move forward to become ‘social beings’? Perceptions on this vary – the role of the biological or adoptive parents is often seen as the base on which the rest of the society’s contribution towards the persona of the child. On the other hand, there are those who discount the origin and attribute changes in the nature of the child to the environment and the pressures of the peer group in which he or she grows. Judith Rich Harris, a developmental psychologist (1998), is of the firm opinion that it is the environment (or peer group) and not parental/genetic influences that play an important role. In this kind of situation, where the very idea of maltreatment is perceived in more ways than one, the factors contributing to this need to be critically examined from varying perspectives.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2005) defines the term critical theory as follows: “a way of thinking about and examining culture and literature by considering the social, historical and ideological forces that affect it and make it the way it is.” To a person who applies the Critical Race Theory (CRT) in this particular problem, it is important to have a comprehensive background on the situation that exists in the USA vis-à-vis the African-American citizen, his rights, his limitations; in short, his very existence.
To understand the situations in which children of a specific ethnic or racial origin are mistreated, it is essential to understand the basic sociological factors that contribute to these acts of prejudice and discrimination. The study of maltreatment of children of Nigerian immigrant families in LA gains importance because of the widespread social work that is undertaken by organizations and the government towards the betterment of underprivileged colored Americans. Sociologists try to be as objective as possible and not let personal opinions and prejudices influence their work. Hence, they are committed to looking beyond ‘the official view’ in an effort to explain why things are as they are in a society and why they do or do not change.
To sociologists and social workers, study on the transition of a child into an adult gives them insight into the study of society as a whole. Since societies throughout the world contain peoples with different skin colors, languages, religions, and customs, it is important for those studying this to be aware of all physical and cultural traits of a specific group that is being studied. One needs to understand that by providing high societal visibility of these traits, the same service as identifying representations of group conformity or membership. It is in line with this that individuals are assigned statuses in the social structure based on the group to which they belong.
In today’s America, when leaders (both political and otherwise) are struggling to bridge the race and color divide and trying desperately to create a semblance of equality between white and black, the real victims are children. To a child growing up in a neighborhood where there are people of varying hues and colors, ‘being different’ could lead to being ‘treated differently.’ What concerns us more is the perception of this treatment. How and why do people view treatment or mistreatment (used synonymously with maltreatment) of children? Could prejudice be the only reason, or is it something more complex, such as a cultural divide that looks at child-rearing in varied ways?
Social rules and regulations are only very general guides to action, and there is much scope for them to be interpreted in different ways depending on the individuals and groups involved. What results is a social order which again is a point of contention more often than not. This is why there are occasional conflicts over how rules are to be interpreted and applied and what standards of behavior should be followed. In the case of children, this social order and accepted social behavior are closely linked to a wide range of issues, ethnic differences, and economic disparities being just a few.
The determination to succeed in the face of adversity is a common link that unites minority groups in any society. There is a demonstration of steel-will to fight for recognition in a land that they believe is their own. A cynic would probably aver that this is because the colored man would be persona-non-grata in Africa and hence tries desperately to establish an identity for himself in America. Be that as it may, there is a concerted effort on the part of the African American to gain a firm foothold in American society – to have equal opportunity in every field imaginable. However, it must be stated here that equal opportunity, even if realized in American life, does not necessarily produce equality of outcome.
As part of the background study, what is most relevant is an insight into the life of a Nigerian family in Nigeria. The family does not exist as a separate unit. The link between families is so strong that children are looked after by the community as a whole. Instead of the ‘my children’ scenario, what is widely accepted is the concept of ‘our children. Traditional Nigerian families in general and women, in particular, downplayed the role of the mother in child-rearing and placed a lot of emphasis on divine intervention. When the move to America took place, this cultural trait had to take a back seat; the Nigerian woman was therefore faced with a catch-22 situation. It is a balancing act to cope with age-old cultural practices about childbearing & rearing on the one hand and the pressures of American society on the other. In the process, the perception of ‘maltreatment’ changes course. From her parents and grandparents, the Nigerian woman hears that to discipline a child, physical activity is not only accepted but is also recommended over verbal cautioning. The American society and government have differing views. Parental physical disciplining action could be construed as physical abuse and/or maltreatment. There is this conflict between moral codes in complex social and cultural traditions that are embedded in the collective psyche of a community (here, the Nigerian immigrant community). As Durkheim (1893, 1912) pointed out, for a modern society to exist, there has to be an agreement on values. It is when there is this disagreement that maltreatment of children is viewed with varying perceptions.
The main issue at hand is to highlight the various perceptions of the maltreatment of children belonging to immigrant families of African origin. What is part of this larger picture is the use of CRT, intersectionality, and constructionism that can be used in tandem to make an in-depth study of the main issue.
The common thread that runs through all these theories is the fact that when it comes to physical and/or mental abusive acts against children, there is more to it than meets the eye. Since there are various determining factors (cultural, political, social, ethnic, to mention just a few), it is necessary to examine these before coming to any kind of constructive solution to the problem.
Of course, it is also necessary to understand that another aspect of the problem lies in bringing together pure theory and practical application. This is because sociological research is a set of disagreements, firstly about the type of explanatory framework to use – theoretical disagreements – and secondly about the actual explanations which are provided.
Since the topic is about ‘perceptions’ of maltreatment to children, this term could be used synonymously with ‘perspectives.’ It would therefore be relevant to mention here the most commonly known perspectives of social research. To put it down in simple terms, looking at the issue from a Marxist perspective indicates that you are looking for conflict. If you are a functionalist, you will look for a consensus on the issue; if you are an interactionist, you would just look!
Hence, the problem is to understand why children of Nigerian origin are mistreated in a city like Los Angeles. Does the color of their skin make them instant targets of hate crimes? Are they still moving around LA or any other part of the US, trying to bridge the gap between life in Nigeria and their present existence here? Though there are writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003) who elaborately illustrate the lives of Nigerian children in Nigeria, partially exposed to western traditions, because they are Christians, it is still difficult to come to terms with American life.
The other pressing question is: is there a feeling among whites and other minority groups (like Latinos and Hispanics) that the government takes undue care of African-Americans? Are Nigerians targeted by other African-Americans as well? Answers to these questions can come from exhaustive studies wherein there is an attempt to probe into the meanings and beliefs of individuals acting together in groups.
To use a clichéd phrase, America is a melting point of many cultures, which results in varied lifestyles and perceptions about ordinary day-to-day occurrences. This leads to a situation wherein people are vying with each other to keep up to certain standards of life, irrespective of whether or not a particular behavior/attitude is part of their upbringing and culture. Constantly, one group of people are forced to look at themselves through the eyes of another group. This is because a person belonging to a minority group is not allowed true self-consciousness. Looking at one’s self through the eyes of others is not only a tiring exercise but one that can create unrest within the person as well as within the group. W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) best described this person-within-a-person feeling: “One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” It would therefore be relevant to list out the purposes of this study, in brief:
- To have a thorough understanding of the various perspectives from which the problem of maltreatment of immigrant children, in its entirety, can be viewed and understood.
- To understand the traditional Nigerian way of life that influences most Nigerian parents, irrespective of whether they live in Nigeria or America.
- To study the socio-economic problems faced by Nigerian immigrant children and understand if and why they are victims of maltreatment either at school or in their neighborhood.
- To be able to put together points of intersection for people from varied walks of life; could initiate a healing process in line with CRT.
- To understand the theories that are cited in the essay and be able to make practical applications of the same. This is to ensure that there is an operationalization of concepts that are discussed to the maximum extent possible.
- To come up with suggestions for a lasting solution to the problem – though this might sound like a pompous claim, an effort will be made to suggest simple ways and means have a better understanding of the problem.
Theoretical bases and organization
To understand the need for a study of various perspectives on the issue at hand, it is essential to have a clear view of what people from various fields would be looking for. In a debate that concerns the maltreatment of children, there are varied and numerous viewpoints that come up. Some converge, and many do not. Nevertheless, it is necessary to bring together these varying views, which is what CRT focuses on. When minor points in an issue are studied closely, it is believed that a more realistic and lasting resolution of the problem can be reached.
It is not easy to classify this particular topic as a purely sociological one. This is because sociology itself is a melting point of many views – the psychologist, economist, political scientist, social worker, demographer, cultural scientist, historian, and a few more others contribute to what eventually becomes social policy. Therefore before collating the varying perceptions of child maltreatment among African immigrant families, it is important for us to identify what each contributor could perceive the problem to be:
- Psychologists would be focusing more on the biological processes in explaining human behavior. Stanley Milgram (1992), for example, in his studies of conformity and obedience to authority, has developed many ideas of interest to sociologists. When the study is about children, obedience and conformity are salient points since children are expected to conform to certain preset standards and be obedient, whether the rule(s) is just or not.
- Political scientists are interested in the study of power and authority and, of course, even more, interested in the legitimacy of this power. They would also be interested in focusing on how specific political ideologies could affect relationships between groups of people. It is these kinds of differences that could give rise to problems of maltreatment and bias towards the immigrant child.
- The economist or demographer would be more focused on the quantifiable aspects of a particular problem. He would like to know how and to what extent social inequalities and deep-rooted traditions could affect the American polity.
- The cultural scientist and/or historian would be interested in delving into the reasons for the present state of things, looking at the maltreatment of immigrant children as a cultural issue that has come about mainly because of what has happened in the recent and not so recent past. They would be of the opinion that answers to the problem lie in bringing to light historical facts and cultural issues that have hitherto lain unexplored.
The purpose of this study is therefore twofold:
- One, to try an interdisciplinary approach, which could combine economic research with historical and cultural analyses across a wide range of fields from the family to the media, from the economy to the State. It is hoped that through this study, there will be a better understanding of the social and political fabric that runs through diverse ethnic and racial groups. When there is a clear understanding of these differences, there will be a more concerted movement towards constructionism – a more sustainable answer to ironing out these differences. Constructionism, in this context, could be described as a philosophy of education where the opinion of a particular peer group has as much weightage as that of a teacher in the learning process of a child.
- Two, to establish the importance of the intersectionality theory. It is necessary here to simplify this theory: when oppression occurs in society, it could be on the basis of any or some or all of these factors – race, gender, religion, ethnicity, class, disability, etc. Those who look at intersectionality as a social-studies tool believe that these oppressions in society do not exist in isolation but are inextricably interrelated. Therefore, it is not possible to study the maltreatment of children by looking at its nature and frequency alone. With intersectionality as a base, it would be relatively easier and more effective to look at the cultural, political, social, and economic factors that contribute to such acts of anti-social behavior that are commonly associated with immigrant African American families.
Undertaking a study on maltreatment of Nigerian children in LA might sound like a fairly simple exercise, one which would look at the problem from a few select angles. However, the study is not as simple as it sounds. In fact, in a study such as this, where there is a constant overlapping of disciplines and ideologies, it is difficult to draw lines of demarcation. Therefore, it is necessary to outline the possible limitations of such a study as briefly as possible:
- Establishing the direct cause for maltreatment could pose a problem since the issue at hand is far from simple. For instance, there is a feeling that more jobs are being allotted to African-Americans, thereby denying others of this right to livelihood. An attack on a Nigerian child cannot be directly linked to this. In a roundabout way, one could argue that since Nigerian families are given succor by the Government, there is a deep hostility towards them on the part of the whites and other ethnic minority groups, which could be the primary cause.
- Even though CRT is a well-known and oft-applied theory, in a practical situation, it becomes cumbersome to use to arrive at workable solutions. In theory, it is necessary for the social researcher to look at as many viewpoints as possible, not just cursorily but in depth. There are bound to be difficulties in getting sufficient information that can be classified as various perspectives that will go together to make one composite whole. Hence the application of CRT in real-life situations has its own practical difficulties.
- Even though intersectionality is becoming a widely accepted tool of social research that helps people get a clear insight into problems ranging from racism to feminism, there is no doubt that application of the same, while dealing with problems faced by immigrant children, will lead to a lot of practical difficulties.
- The availability of statistics on the maltreatment of immigrant children is limited. Very often, cases do not get reported and hence are not recorded.
- Since the problem of maltreatment cannot be studied in isolation, it is imperative that a whole lot of other issues (such as racial harmony, economic status, and cultural background) of the community in question need to be examined closely. This could turn out to be a time and money-consuming exercise, thereby proving to be a limitation to such a study.
A minority group can be defined as a racially or culturally self-conscious population. As Williams (1964) says, this is a group that is so because of its hereditary membership; another determining factor is the oppression of this group by another dominant group. Hence referring to children belonging to minority groups indicates a group within a minority group.
Along with CRT, Reductionism (which is to break up into smaller components, what could otherwise be an unmanageable entity as a whole) could be a useful social tool.
A close look at most of the books and papers are written on the subject of maltreatment of immigrant children leads one to believe that most often, racial prejudices are at the core of the problem. Though there is no separate section to indicate hate crimes against children, in particular, the statistical data provided by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations (2006) clearly indicates the existence of strong racial prejudices that run through the Los Angeles society. Neal Lester (2007), in his book, looks closely at the various issues that are part of the existence of African-American children. Whether it is the use of the derogatory word – nigger – or the color of the skin, the book tries to help children and adults come to terms with the injustices meted out to them by the so-called superior race. McLoyd, Hill & Dodge (2005) have put together a few perspectives of African American families in order to showcase factors that could either act for or against a colored family’s wellbeing.
Since the target group of this study was children of immigrant parents, special emphasis was placed on writings that concerned their welfare. Richard Majors (2001) has made a sincere endeavor to interact with specialists in the field of education and social work. His book throws up a few solutions that can be studied and adapted by both the USA and UK in their fight to protect the immigrant child.
Suggestions and conclusions
To say that children of immigrant parents (especially Nigerian) should be made aware of possible maltreatment (by racists or others) is probably a simplistic suggestion, devoid of a firm grasp of what the situation really is. This is where the intersectionality theory and CRT can play an important role. Reductionism would also be a valuable aid. In the process of doing this, it would be ideal for taking a look at the following constructive suggestions:
- to take a closer look at the immigration laws of the country in an effort to minimize anti-immigrant sentiments.
- To enact suitable laws and regulations in LA county to counter acts of racial aggression that could lead to maltreatment of children.
- To make available to students in general and children in particular, recorded history and ill-effects of hate crimes.
- To get people to focus more on pending issues viz., jobs and the declining economy; this will ensure that time & energy will be largely spent in stabilizing these factors.
- To involve cultural activists in bridging the gap between living in Africa (Nigeria) and living in the US.
- To sensitize teachers and parents towards the needs of children who live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society, thereby ensuring that timely remedial action is taken.
In line with the Critical Race Theory, the right way to approach this multidimensional problem is by breaking it up into as many sub-units as possible and tackling each one of them with focused action. Mere rhetoric is certainly not the panacea to all ills. What is required is a resolute plan of action that will take into consideration all the contributing factors and ensure that there is a workable link established between them all, eventually resulting in a society wherein immigrant children feel safe and secure.
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