Earlier this week, a grand jury ruled that the Cleveland police officers would not face criminal charges in the death of Tamir Rice. The boy, who was 12, was playing with a toy gun near his home when he was shot by a police officer last November. Much has been written about the case in the in the 13 months since the story broke, but here’s a detail you might’ve missed. A consistent theme has emerged in the language used to describe Tamir’s appearance, the Washington Post noted on Monday: Tamir was “big for his age,” and, in his extra-large jacket and size-36 pants, he “could have easily passed for someone much older” than the 12-year-old child he was.
Statements like these make a paper published by the American Psychological Association in 2014 seem eerily prescient in retrospect, as Post politics reporter Christopher Ingraham goes on to point out. That report — titled “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” — surveyed real police officers in an attempt to measure hidden biases about black people, especially children. The results are striking.
In one experiment, a group of 60 police officers from a large urban police force were asked to assess the age of white, black and Latino children based on photographs. The officers were randomly assigned to be told that the children in the photographs were accused of either a misdemeanor or felony charge. The officers overestimate the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years, but they actually underestimated the age of white felony-suspected children by nearly a year.
That same report included a similar experiment, in which 264 college students — most of whom were white — were presented with descriptions of criminal activities, which were paired with pictures of the white, black or Latino boys who supposedly were responsible for those crimes. The students consistently overestimated the age of the black children by 4.5 years, suggesting that “in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old,” study co-author Matthew Jackson told the APA.
The study participants were also more likely to rate the black boys as less innocent than the white or Latino boys, “particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes,” according to the APA report. As study author Phillip Atiba Goff told the APA, the findings suggest that “black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”