New Study Shows That Black Girls Are Seen As Less Innocent Than White Girls – Starting At AGE FIVE

by Hannah Rose

Previous statistics have shown that black girls in America have disproportionately higher rates of punitive treatment in education and juvenile justice systems than their white peers, and a new study from Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality may help us to understand why.

Researchers surveyed 324 adults in the United States from various ethnic backgrounds and educational backgrounds (there were trends, however: 74% were white, 62% were female, and 69% held a degree beyond a high school diploma), and asked them about their perceptions of white girls’ verses black girls’ development. The results, provided for the first time, are disappointing. They found that black girls are more likely to be seen as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls, a trend the researchers call “adultification,” and it’s most prevalent in black girls from ages 5-14. That means that starting at age 5 (Yes, five, when they’re just beginning kindergarten), stereotypical perceptions are already formed about black girls that can be used to discriminately inform the way that adults treat them and discipline them.


Like most social inequities, the theory thought to be behind this perceptive prejudice has deep roots in American history. During the period of slavery, black children began working as early as age two to three years old, subjecting them to the dehumanization experienced by adults and robbing them of their childhoods. They were typically deemed unworthy of playtime and punished for behaviors normal for children at their respective developmental stages.

When we rob children of the ability to be perceived as children, we also rob them of “the very essences of what makes childhood distrinct from all other developmental periods: innocence,” the study suggests. Researchers also found that black girls are seen as needing less protection and nurturing, which may account for less mentorship and leadership opportunities in school. And adultification can even be as straightforward as police officers miscalculating biological age – the study included a story about a 15-year-old black girl in New York arrested for using a student Metrocard. The officers refused to believe she was 15, even after her parents verified her age via phone, and she was only released her after her mother brought her birth certificate to the police station. She had to be treated at a hospital for wounds inflicted by the handcuffs.

And the increased culpability of black girls isn’t just anecdotal, it’s supported by statistics. Prosecutors dismiss, on average, only three out of every ten cases for black girls, but dismiss seven out of every ten cases involving white girls. Black girls are also 2-3 times more likely to be punished at school for the same behaviors as white girls. Across all settings, black girls consistently receive more severe punishment than their white peers – “even after accounting for seriousness of the offense, prior record, and age.”

So now, with the support of research, we know that the adultification of black girls is occurring, and we believe this has significant implications for their more punitive treatment in social systems . . . so what do we do about it? Researchers suggest the solution (a fundamental step for reducing social inequality in general) lies in increased awareness of this stereotypical perception and education about how to correct it. They advocate that individuals that have authority over children – including teachers and law enforcement officials – be provided with “with training on adultification to address and counteract this manifestation of implicit bias against Black girls.” They add that “Above all, further efforts must ensure that the voices of Black girls themselves remain front and center to the work.” Get all of the facts by reading the full article here, and continue the conversation. 

Photos: Flickr Creative Commons/David Robert Bilwas; screenshot from Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality study

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