Black Girls Seen as Less Innocent, Study Says

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American adults view young Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, a perception that could lead to disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in schools and the justice system, a groundbreaking new study co-authored by an Occidental College professor shows.

The report from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center, co-authored by Associate Professor of Politics Thalia González, builds on previous studies of adult perceptions of Black boys. As the first study to focus on Black girls, the results show that compared to white girls of the same age, Black girls ages 5-14 are seen as needing less nurturing and less support, and knowing more about adult topics, including sex.

"Simply put, our findings indicate that adults impose differential views and expectations about the development of Black girls compared to their white peers. This strips them of their identity and innocence as children at a critical stage in their life and development," said González, who co-authored the report with Center Executive Director Rebecca Epstein and Jamilia J. Blake, associate professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University.

"It can also mean decreased educational opportunities, higher rates of entry into the juvenile justice system, and harsher treatment once in the system," González said.

The study surveyed 325 adults from various racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds from across the United States. Each participant was asked to answer a series of questions about their beliefs about children’s development, based on a scale of childhood innocence used in previous studies of Black boys. Randomly chosen participants were asked either about their perception of Black girls or white girls.

Compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants perceived that:

  • Black girls need less nurturing
  • Black girls need less protection
  • Black girls need to be supported less
  • Black girls need to be comforted less
  • Black girls are more independent
  • Black girls know more about adult topics
  • Black girls know more about sex

The most significant differences in perception of Black and white girls were found in age brackets of 5 to 9 and 10 to 14 and continued to a lesser degree in the 15 to 19-year-old age bracket. These findings mean that for Black girls, the perception of being more adult-like and less innocent begins five years earlier than boys.

González and her co-authors included a call to action in their study, urging other scholars to conduct additional research to investigate the degree and prevalence of what they call the "adultification" of Black girls. They also called on policymakers to examine the apparent disparities in treatment of Black and white girls in schools and the juvenile justice systems and make any necessary reforms.

"To address adultification, we must change our public systems that can perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes and profoundly impact the lived experience of Black girls," González said. "In schools, this mean continuing to shift discipline away from punitive approaches to restorative practices, and thinking critically about policies that punish Black girls more often and more severely for minor subjective offenses such as talking back in a classroom."

This most recent report builds on González’s prior work on juvenile justice and school discipline. That work includes the country’s first long-term study of the impact of restorative justice techniques in an urban school district, drawing on data from the Denver public school system. Her study found that they are effective in reducing suspensions and expulsions that have had a disproportionate impact on students of color, particularly Latinos and Blacks.

The Georgetown study was funded by the Open Society Foundations, the NoVo Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.