A report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality reveals that adults view black girls—starting at age five—as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls of the same age.
The study focuses on the “adultification” of black girls, shining a light on bias aimed at black female children.
“What we found is that adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” says Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report and executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Adults also view black girls as less nurturing, more independent, and more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers, as well as in need of less support and comfort than white girls.
“This new evidence of what we call the ‘adultification’ of black girls may help explain why black girls in America are disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls—across our schools and in our juvenile justice system,” Epstein says.
Researchers surveyed 325 adults from a community sample collected through an online service. Approximately 74% of respondents were white. The participants were given a survey asking about their beliefs about kids’ development and needs for four age brackets—0-4 years old, 5-9, 10-14, and 15-19. The widest differences between adult respondents’ perceptions of black and white girls occurred between the ages of 5 and 14.
“…Our perception of young people’s innocence and ongoing development has led, over time, to granting children leniency when determining the consequences of their behavior,” the report states. “The special legal status bestowed on youth, in particular, is based on a well-established understanding of children’s social and psychological development—that they should be held less responsible and culpable for their actions, and that they are capable, through the ongoing developmental process, of rehabilitation.” These principles, says the report, should work to protect children from criminalization and from adult consequences.
Yet, according to US Department of Education data, black girls—just 8% of all enrolled students (K-12)—account for 13% of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. Black girls make up around 16% of enrolled female students, but receive 28% of referrals to law enforcement, and 37% of school arrests of all female students. White girls account for 50% the female school population, but only 34% of referrals among female students and 30% of arrests.
The report points out that African American girls frequently receive more severe punishments than white girls for the same offenses at school, despite not being any more likely to act out than their white counterparts.
And on days when black girls are suspended, they are more likely than white girls to be arrested. Research has shown that suspensions are linked to dropping out and juvenile justice system-involvement.
Black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system, 20% more likely to be detained, and 20% more likely to be charged with a crime as white girls.
“These findings show that pervasive stereotypes of black women as hyper-sexualized and combative are reaching into our schools and playgrounds and helping rob black girls of the protections other children enjoy,” says report coauthor Jamilia Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University.
The report authors, Epstein and Blake, urge academics to conduct further research into the adultification of black girls, and how it may play into negative education, child welfare, and justice system outcomes. The researchers also recommend training for teachers and school police on adultification, in order to combat biases against kids of color.
Other studies have examined the perception that black boys are less innocent and more adult than their white counterparts. In 2014, a report by ULCA Professors Phillip Goff and Matthew Christian Jackson (and other academics) found that at age 10, black males are more likely than their white peers to be seen as older than their actual age, and viewed as guilty of crimes. In that report, even police officers overestimated black boys’ ages by 4.5 years.