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Young Black Girls Perceived As Less Innocent Than White Girls of the Same Age, Study Finds

Adults believed Black girls needed less comfort and support than their white peers. (Photo by Time Hall/Cultura/Getty Images).

Adults tend to view Black girls as young as 5 years old as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, according to recent study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The report, titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl’s Childhood,” examines how society’s perception of young African-American girls leads to what authors dub their “adultification.” The study found that adults perceive young Black girls ages 5-14 as older than white girls of the same age and believe Black girls require less nurturing, protection, comfort and support than their white counterparts.

In addition, adults thought Black girls were more independent, knew more about adult topics and were more knowledgeable about sex than young white girls.

The study built on previous research by Columbia Law Professor Phillip Goff and colleagues, which revealed that starting at the age of 10, African-American boys are more likely to be perceived as older, viewed as guilty of a suspected crime and face police violence compared to their white counterparts. The Georgetown Law study is the first of its kind to specifically focus on girls.

Rebecca Epstein, lead author and executive director of the center, and Jamilia J. Blake, co-author and a professor at Texas A&M University, discussed how these negative perceptions could possibly affect how young African-American girls are disciplined at their schools and elsewhere. Occidental College Professor Thalia Gonzalez also contributed to the report.

“One reason this might be occurring is because Black girls are being held to the same stereotypes we have of Black women,” Blake told the Huffington Post Tuesday, June 27, during a press conference call. “Black women have historically and currently been seen as being aggressive, loud, defiant and oversexualized. And I believe, along with many other researchers, that the stereotypes of Black women are being mapped on to Black girls.”

In the report, Blake and Epstein also noted how such perceptions of Black girls can lead to greater use of force, harsher punishments and “a more punitive exercise of discretion” from those in positions of power in both the education and juvenile justice system. For instance, young African-American girls are nearly five times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys, according to prior data used in the report.

The study also stated that Black girls are 2.7 times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than their white counterparts and 1.2 times as likely to be detained. They are also 20 percent more likely to be charged with a crime.

“The consequences of entering the juvenile justice system can’t be ignored,” Epstein told the Huffington Pot. “As we know, it can change the course of a girl’s life. But despite these startling statistics, there is precious little research about why this different treatment happens; why are Black girls subjected to more discipline and greater contact with the juvenile justice system?”

“At the center, we wanted to look at those possible root causes,” she continued.

For their research, authors surveyed 325 adults from various racial/ethnic backgrounds and different educational levels across the country. Participants were asked to complete a nine-item questionnaire regarding their beliefs about children’s development in the 21st century. Authors said they found the most significant differences in the ways adults view children in the age brackets 5-9 and 10-14. These differences continued to a lesser degree in the 15-19 age range.

The authors called on fellow researchers to create new studies examining the degree and prevalence of the adultification of Black girls and its “possible casual connection” to negative outcomes. They also urged policymakers to take a look at the disparities that exist for Black girls in the education and juvenile justice systems to spur reform.

“Above all, further efforts must ensure that the voices of Black girls themselves remain front and center to the work,” they concluded.


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