On the same day that a Minneapolis jury declared police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, a police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. Ma’Khia had called the police for help.

This death fits a pattern in which Black girls are punished disproportionally for ostensible offenses because of their race and gender. In January, an Upstate New York police officer pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl. In May 2020, a Michigan judge had a 15-year-old Black girl arrested and incarcerated because she didn’t complete her online schoolwork. In September 2019, police arrested and fingerprinted a 6-year-old Black girl for kicking a staff member at her school in Orlando.

U.S. police arrest, jail and assault Black girls regularly with very little national fanfare. When Black girls’ punitive experiences garner national attention, they are often framed as one-off events, or blamed on individual institutions such as the police or schools.

But my new research finds that a majority of White Americans hold race and gender stereotypes of Black girls and support the disproportionate punishments inflicted on them.

How I did my research

This new work builds on an extensive body of existing research. For instance, in 2017, social scientists Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia González conducted a survey experiment with mainly White American women to understand their perceptions of Black and White girls. The study found that respondents viewed Black girls as young as 5 years old as adultlike. Further, White respondents viewed Black girls as needing less nurturing, protection, support or comfort and as having more knowledge about sex and adult topics than White girls. These attitudes were consistent with racial and gender stereotypes described by Monique W. Morris and many others as key mechanisms for explaining the growing school-to-confinement tracking of Black girls.

My research makes the statistical link between the racial and gender stereotypes of Black girls and how they are punished even clearer. I conducted a national survey experiment in March 2020, using CloudResearch, on a representative sample of 1,466 adults, 77.8 percent of whom were White Americans. In the experiment, I assigned respondents to read a scenario about a school dress code violation. But the racial and gender identity of the violating student varied randomly by name. Respondents read about a student either named Keisha (for a Black girl), Emily (White girl), Jamal (Black boy) or Jake (White boy). After they read the dress code scenario, I asked respondents 1) if the student was acting older than their age; 2) if the student posed a danger or threat to others; 3) if the student was knowledgeable about sex; and 4) if the school provided the student with the appropriate level of punishment for their behavior.

As earlier research has also found, my study revealed that the White U.S. public sees Black girls as older, more dangerous and more knowledgeable about sex than others. In particular, White Americans were twice as likely to view Black girls as a threat or danger to others compared with White girls, and nearly 10 percentage points more likely to view Black girls as more knowledgeable about sex than all other students examined. Further, when asked whether suspension was too harsh of a punishment for violating the school dress code, respondents viewed it as 10 percentage points less harsh for Keisha than her peers. In other words, suspension was deemed most appropriate for Black girls. This suggests that White Americans are willing to support harsher punishments for Black girls than for other students who commit the same actions.

Are these findings limited to the pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd protests era?

I conducted the initial experiment before the pandemic shut down the country and before the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020. These major events might have changed the results. To find out, my graduate research assistant Irene Kwon and I replicated the experiment in October 2020. We wondered whether perceptions of Black girls had improved after national attention to Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers after they burst into her home while she was in bed, with a no-knock warrant. But we found more of the same.

Whites tended to believe Black girls were more adultlike — more sexual and mature — than their White or Black peers. Those who saw Black girls this way were also more willing to support punishing them more harshly, through detention, suspension and expulsion, for the dress code infraction. In short, not much had changed.

Seeing Black girls as adults has harsh consequences

Police killed Ma’Khia Bryant, the Columbus teenager, on the very day that George Floyd’s killer was legally declared a murderer. Our research suggests that her death results not only from individual police failings, but also from White Americans’ widely held stereotypes about Black girls as dangerous adults, not innocent children.

Some U.S. officials are working on policies intended to counteract such preemptive criminalization. For instance, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) has introduced H. Res. 702, The People’s Justice Guarantee (PUSHOUT act), which is intended to disrupt school-to-confinement pathways by emphasizing restorative “people-centered” practices instead of incarceration. Similarly, Rep. Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.) has introduced the Protect Black Women and Girls Act, aimed at promoting Black girls’ and women’s health and well-being across their life spans.

National organizations such as the African American Policy Forum have continued to raise awareness of police violence against Black women and girls through their #SayHerName campaign. More locally, grass-roots groups such as Assata’s Daughters and GoodKids MadCity are working to replace criminalization and incarceration with systems of care and support.

Each of these efforts make clear that if Black girls are to be treated with the equal dignity that all children deserve, then Americans may wish to focus on replacing criminalization with solutions that eliminate the structures and stereotypes that make their premature deaths possible.

Sally A. Nuamah (@sally-nuamah) is an assistant professor of urban politics, human development and social policy at Northwestern University, and author of the award-winning book How Girls Achieve (Harvard University Press, 2019).