Researchers and advocates have noted for years that Black Americans face a higher risk of imprisonment than White Americans and constitute almost 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. One reason for the disparity may be racial bias. Now, a study from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality reveals black girls may face such bias while still in kindergarten.
According to a Georgetown University Law Center report Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, released Tuesday, which expands on a 2014 study on adult perceptions of black boys, adults view young black girls as less innocent than white girls of the same age.
“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,” Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report and executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, said in a statement.
The study found that black girls, particularly those age 5 to 14, are seen as more sexually mature and know more about adult topics than white girls in the same peer group. The result, authors Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez wrote, is that black girls experience “adultification,” and are not afforded the same childhood benefits as whites.
The study builds on what the authors call a surprising dearth of research about perceptions of black girls. It follows a 2014 study by researcher Phillip Goff that found black boys, as young as age 10, are more likely to be regarded as suspicious, older than they look, and presumed guilty of crimes.
The researchers surveyed 325 adults from a variety of racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds. The participants were overwhelmingly white — 74 percent overall — and female — 62 percent. The majority of respondents — 69 percent — had an advanced degree. The participants were randomly divided and asked a series of identical questions about either white girls or black girls, such as “How much do [black or white] girls need to be comforted?”
Blake, a researcher for the report, said the study did not specifically examine differences in perceptions between black adults and white adults.
The new report concluded that adults surveyed thought:
- Black girls seem older than white girls of the same age.
- Black girls need to be supported less than white girls.
- Black girls know more about adult topics than white girls.
- Black girls need less protection than white girls.
- Black girls know more about sex than white girls.
Epstein said the survey results were the effect of “adultification,” or adults’ perception of youth as older than their actual age. The reasons for adultification of young black girls specifically is due to historical stereotypes of black women, said co-author Jamilia Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University.
“Black women have historically been seen as aggressive, loud, defiant and oversexualized,” Blake said. “We have a societal stereotype that is pervasive. It goes across the media, and it’s embedded in our history and our interactions.”
The adultification of black girls manifests in real-world situations, the study found, such as discipline in school and elsewhere.
The researchers say they have no intention of leaving the topic behind. Epstein calls the study “a call to action” for more research, as well as for developing training to make adults aware of their biases and address them.
“We encourage black girls to raise their voices about this issue, and of course for adults to listen to them,” Epstein says. “All black girls are entitled to and deserve equal treatment, including equal access to the protections that are appropriate for children.”