Breanna wasn’t released from handcuffs until her mother brought in a birth certificate that confirmed her age.

She was treated at the hospital for the damage the handcuffs inflicted on her wrists, but that wasn’t the full extent of the damage Breanna, and other young Black girls, suffer from incidents like this and others, since they are so often perceived as older than they are, and far less innocent.

Black Girls Seen As Less Innocent

It’s not only harder for police to believe the age of Black girls, a recent study shows society in general views African-American girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their White peers. This is the conclusion of a study released last month by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. The study, detailed in a new report, Girlhoold Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhoods, is the first of its kind to focus on girls, and builds on previous research on adult perceptions of black boys. That includes a 2014 study led by Phillip Goff that found that, beginning at age 10, Black boys are more likely to be viewed as older and guilty of suspected crimes than white peers.

This new study showed significant bias toward Black girls starting at age 5.

The study applied statistical analysis to a survey of 325 adults from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and educational levels across the United States. Across the four age brackets examined, the most significant differences in adult perceptions were found in relation to girls in mid-childhood (ages 5-9) and early adolescence (10-14), continuing to a lesser degree in the 15 to 19-year-old group. No statistically significant differences were found in the 0-4 age group.

“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,” said Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report and executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center.

“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,” said Epstein.

The new report reveals that adults think:

•Black girls seem older than White girls of the same age.

•Black girls need less nurturing than White girls.

•Black girls need less protection than White girls.

•Black girls need to be supported less than White girls.

•Black girls need to be comforted less than white girls.

•Black girls are more independent than White girls.

•Black girls know more about adult topics than White girls.

•Black girls know more about sex than White girls.

The report authors point out that educators, school-based scholars note that adults regularly respond to Black girls as if they are fully developed adults. Dr. Monique W. Morris observed: The assignment of more adult-like characteristics to the expressions of young Black girls as a form of age compression. Along this truncated age continuum, Black girls are likened more to adults than to children and are treated as if they are willfully engaging in behaviors typically expected of Black women …. This compression … [has] stripped Black girls of their childhood freedoms [and] … renders Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood.

In the words of one teacher captured in a recent study by Professor Edward W. Morris, “They think they are adults too, and they try to act like they should have control sometimes.”

Such comments demonstrate that stereotypes of Black girls, interpreted as “loud,” are imbued with adult-like aspirations, and perceived as a threat. This interpretation of Black girls’ outspokenness may be associated with the stereotype of Black women as aggressive and dominating.

Stereotypes and Biases About Black Women Carryover

Differences in physical development based on the onset of puberty may also play a role in adultification, in light of evidence that “on average, African American girls mature physically at a faster rate than White girls and as a result can be perceived as older.” Another important aspect of adultification for Black girls lies in culturally rooted fantasies of Black girls’ sexualization. The commonly held stereotype of Black girls as hypersexualized is defined by “society’s attribution of sex as part of the ‘natural’ role of Black women and girls.” Noting the long history of perceiving Black women as hypersexualized, Monique W. Morris has observed that adultification results in applying these stereotypes to Black girls: Caricatures of Black femininity stereotypically defines Black female identity as dominant on the one hand and loose morally, on the other hand, both growing out of the roles forced upon Black women during the slavery experience and its aftermath..

“These findings show that pervasive stereotypes of Black women as hypersexualized and combative are reaching into our schools and playgrounds and helping rob Black girls of the protections other children enjoy,” said report coauthor Jamilia Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University.

Black girls treated more like adults

Until now, few scholars have thoroughly investigated why Black girls are subjected to differential disciplinary treatment, while pointing out that police officers and officials across the juvenile justice system often have significant discretion in their decision making, including for minor, subjective infractions such as dress code violations, disobedience and disruptive behavior.

Is it because of these biases that:

•Black girls are five times more likely to be suspended as White girls, and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys.

•Black girls make up just under 16% of the female school population, but account for 28% of referrals to law enforcement, and 37% of arrests.

•White girls account for 50% the female school population, but only 34% of referrals and 30% of arrests.

•Black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system as White girls.

•Black girls are 20% more likely than White girls to be detained.

•Black girls are less likely to benefit from prosecutorial discretion. One study found that prosecutors dismissed only 30% of cases against black girls, while dismissing 70% of cases against White girls.

Ultimately, adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence. Adultification contributes to a false narrative that Black youths’ transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision-making—a key characteristic of childhood. In essence, “the adultification stereotype results in some [Black] children not being afforded the opportunity” to make mistakes and to learn, grow, and benefit from correction for youthful missteps to the same degree as white children. Our study shows that Black girls experience this stereotype directly.

The report authors call for further study into the adultification of Black girls and its possible causal connections to negative outcomes across public systems, including education, juvenile justice and child welfare. They also recommend providing teachers and law enforcement officials with training on adultification to help counteract the negative consequences of this bias against Black girls.

“We urge legislators, advocates and policymakers to examine the disparities that exist for Black girls in the education and juvenile justice systems and to pursue reforms that preserve childhood for all,” wrote study co-author Monique Morris.

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