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 the findings, black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls as early as age 5.
“These are preschool girls who are being viewed as needing less protection and needing less nurturing than their white counterparts,” says Rebecca Epstein, lead author and executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center. “At that age, I find that shocking.”
The most recent findings build on past studies that surveyed respondents’ perceptions of black boys. Though viewed similarly to their white peers through the age of 9, black boys 10 and older are viewed as less innocent than white boys their age. In this case, “innocence” is used as a proxy for children’s lack of worldliness and need for protection. People are also likely to believe black boys are older than they are. When shown pictures of black, white, and Latino boys alongside descriptions of felonies, study participants overestimated black boys’ ages by an average of 4.5 years — the type of guess that would render a 13.5-year-old a legal adult. This effect was unique to black boys; people guessed Latino and white boys’ ages with similar accuracy.
Black girls also face prejudice. In one study of a predominantly black and Latino public school, black girls frequently called out answers in class, performed well academically, and were disproportionately well-represented in AP classes. But although black girls’ participation may have propelled their academic success, teachers — including those who were black women — tended to scold black girls more frequently when they called out than when black boys called out, or when girls of other races called out. Black girls called out more overall, but were also chastened at a higher rate than other kids who called out. So if you were a kid who called out, you were more likely to be scolded if you were a black girl. Rather than viewing black girls’ participation as evidence of engagement, teachers focused on how the shouted answers were indecorous and “unladylike.”
The Georgetown Law study is the first to focus on how people perceive black girls’ innocence and maturity relative to white girls. The researchers surveyed 325 adults (74 percent were white) about the maturity of either white or black girls. Survey respondents considered questions like how often black or white females seem older than their age, how much they need to be comforted, and how much they know about sex. They separately assessed girls in age groups ranging from 0 to 19.
The study found that black girls are viewed as more mature and less innocent than their white peers at an even earlier age than black boys — beginning at age 5, with the most pronounced difference between ages 5 and 14.
Viewing children as more mature because of social stereotypes is called “adultification.” The adultification of black girls may reflect stereotypes about black woman, says co-author Jamilia Blake, of Texas A&M University. “It’s the stereotype of black women as being loud, aggressive, and over-sexualized,” says Blake. “You can trace [these stereotypes] all the way back to slavery.” She adds that adults may not even realize the way stereotypes influence their views.
The authors say the belief that black girls are more mature could be harmful, both in school and in the criminal-justice system. Consciously or subconsciously, educators and legal authorities may view black girls as more culpable for their actions and therefore be more inclined to punish them severely. These prejudices, for example, could help explain why black girls are five times more likely to be suspended than white girls. (They’re also more likely to be suspended than white boys.)
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.”