A new law in California bans the use, in official documents, of the term “at risk” to describe youth identified by social workers, teachers, or the courts as likely to drop out of school, join a gang, or go to jail. Los Angeles assemblyman Reginald B. Jones-Sawyer, who sponsored the legislation, explained that “words matter.” By designating children as “at risk,” he says, “we automatically put them in the school-to-prison pipeline. Many of them, when labeled that, are not able to exceed above that.”
The idea that the term “at risk” assigns outcomes, rather than describes unfortunate possibilities, grants social workers deterministic authority most would be surprised to learn they possess. Contrary to Jones-Sawyer’s characterization of “at risk” as consigning kids to roles as outcasts or losers, the term originated in the 1980s as a less harsh and stigmatizing substitute for “juvenile delinquent,” to describe vulnerable children who seemed to be on the wrong path. The idea of young people at “risk” of social failure buttressed the idea that government services and support could ameliorate or hedge these risks.
Instead of calling vulnerable kids “at risk,” says Jones-Sawyer, “we’re going to call them ‘at-promise’ because they’re the promise of the future.” The replacement term—the only expression now legally permitted in California education and penal codes—has no independent meaning in English. Usually we call people about whom we’re hopeful “promising.” The language of the statute is contradictory and garbled, too. “For purposes of this article, ‘at-promise pupil’ means a pupil enrolled in high school who is at risk of dropping out of school, as indicated by at least three of the following criteria: Past record of irregular attendance . . . Past record of underachievement . . . Past record of low motivation or a disinterest in the regular school program.” In other words, “at-promise” kids are underachievers with little interest in school, who are “at risk of dropping out.” Without casting these kids as lost causes, in what sense are they “at promise,” and to what extent does designating them as “at risk” make them so?
This abuse of language is Orwellian in the truest sense, in that it seeks to alter words in order to bring about change that lies beyond the scope of nomenclature. Jones-Sawyer says that the term “at risk” is what places youth in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” as if deviance from norms and failure to thrive in school are contingent on social-service terminology. The logic is backward and obviously naive: if all it took to reform society were new names for things, then we would all be living in utopia.
New York City is engaged in a similar project to reshape reality. “EDP calls,” the standard designation for emergency police calls involving an “emotionally disturbed person,” are now officially called “mental health calls.” This change, it’s reported, is meant to reduce the stigma associated with calling police when someone is suffering from untreated serious mental illness—as though how the police refer to these calls affects their prevalence or severity.
The New York City Human Rights Commission recently declared that use of the term “illegal alien” can be regarded as evidence of discrimination in housing and the workplace, and thus be subject to heavy fines. Francisco Moya, a councilman from Queens, has introduced legislation to remove the word “alien” from the New York City Administrative Code, on the grounds that it is “outdated and loaded.” According to Moya, “its definition is ‘non-citizen,’ which is a perfectly clear word that doesn’t need to hide behind a euphemism.” But “alien” is no euphemism—it is a standard, neutral legal term that appears throughout the federal and state codes. Activists don’t like it—or “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien,” both of which would also be prohibited from official use—not because the terms are vague but because they are precise. Instead, the term “non-citizen” would cover all shades of alienage, including permanent legal residents, visa overstayers, and people who snuck into the country.
Like Jones-Sawyer, Moya says that “words matter.” It’s a sentiment commonly heard on the left by people appealing to linguistic clarity, but their calls for precision are undone by the muddled alternatives they propose. What they seek, in the end, is less about purity of expression than a demonstration of power—the power to stop up your mouth and change the way you think and speak.