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Study: Black girls viewed as ‘less innocent’ than white girls

Adults view young black girls as less innocent than white girls of the same age, a new study has found, indicating that children’s race may affect how their actions are perceived.

The report from Georgetown University law school's Center on Poverty and Inequality, released Tuesday, 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.

“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,” Epstein, the center’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “This new evidence of what we call the ‘adultification’ of black girls may help explain why black girls in America are disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls – across our schools and in our juvenile justice system.”

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.

Overall, the study concluded that when adults compared white girls and black girls they viewed black girls as needing less nurturing, less support and less comfort.

“Ultimately, adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence,” the authors wrote. “Adultification contributes to a false narrative that black youths’ transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision-making—a key characteristic of childhood.”

The authors wrote that these perceptions may be contributing to discrepancies in school discipline and juvenile justice charges among black girls. The study noted that black girls are five times more likely than white girls to be suspended from school and 20 percent more likely to be charged with a crime.

“These findings show that pervasive stereotypes of black women as hypersexualized and combative are reaching into our schools and playgrounds and helping rob black girls of the protections other children enjoy,” said Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University. “We urge legislators, advocates and policymakers to examine the disparities that exist for black girls in the education and juvenile justice systems and to pursue reforms that preserve childhood for all.”

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