A new study suggests American adults tend to view black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers, a bias that may contribute to disproportionate discipline in public schools and the criminal-justice system.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released data that revealed black girls, who make up just 8 percent of enrolled public-school students, also represent 13 percent of students with one or more out-of-school suspensions.
The data also revealed that racial disparities in discipline rates start early. Black girls represent 20 percent of female preschool enrollment but 54 percent of female preschool students who receive one or more suspensions. And a follow-up study published in the journal Sociology in Education found that black girls are three times as likely as their white peers to be disciplined for disruptive behavior, fighting and bullying or harassment.
A new report released last week attempts to explain why educators may take a stricter approach with their black female students.
“Black girls are oversuspended and harshly punished. One reason why this might be occurring is because black girls are being held to the same stereotypes that we have of black women,” said Jamilia J. Blake, a professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of the report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.”
“Black women have historically and currently been seen as being aggressive, loud, defiant and oversexualized,” Blake said in a conference call with reporters last week. “And I believe, along with many other researchers, that the stereotypes of black women are being mapped onto black girls.
“That is, when adults are interacting with black girls, they are seeing them not as children but as black women, who are loud, aggressive and again oversexualized.”
The report, released by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, found that American adults think black girls are less innocent and seem older than white girls of the same age. They also perceive black girls as more independent, more knowledgeable about sex and less in need of support, nurturing, protection and comfort than white girls.
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Blake and her co-authors refer to this perception as the “adultification” of black girls, and their survey of 325 adults in the U.S. found the bias toward black girls starts by age 5. That’s compared to a similar bias toward black boys that previous research found begins at age 10.
“The age that we start to see this was very shocking,” Blake said.
“The fact that you would think a 5-year-old is more knowledgeable about sex is amazing to me,” she added.
In addition to facing disproportionate discipline in schools, black girls also encounter differential treatment in the juvenile-justice system, the report’s authors note.
They cited a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Justice that found black girls are nearly three times more likely to be referred to the juvenile-justice system than white girls and 1.2 times more likely to be detained.
“If law enforcement, probation officers, prosecutors, and judges view black girls as less innocent and more adult, they may adultify black girls and view their behavior as intentional, threatening, or otherwise noncompliant on that basis and deem these girls less deserving of leniency,” the report reads.
Lead author Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Center, described the new report as a call to action.
She encouraged other researchers to continue examining the “adultification” of black girls and its connection to harsh or unfair treatment. Epstein also wants to see more research on other girls of color.
“It’s also a call for public awareness and policy reform,” she said. “Policymakers and leadership, as well as workers in the public system, should engage in reform efforts to counteract this form of potential bias, and they should be educated and informed about the phenomenon of adultification. We also hope that trainings will be developed to address it.”