Black Girls Viewed as Less Innocent Than White Girls, New Georgetown Law Research Shows

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First study focused on “adultification” of black girls shows significant bias toward girls starting at age 5, younger than in previous research on black boys.

Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality released the new report "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood."

A groundbreaking study released today by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality finds that adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14.

The study, detailed in the new report, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, is the first of its kind to focus on girls, and builds on previous research on adult perceptions of black boys. That includes a 2014 study led by Phillip Goff that found that, beginning at age 10, black boys are more likely to be viewed as older and guilty of suspected crimes than white peers.

Authors of the new Georgetown Law report adapted the scale of childhood innocence developed by Goff and colleagues to include items associated with stereotypes of black women and girls. They then applied the scale to a new survey on adult perceptions of girls. The findings showed significant bias toward black girls starting as young as 5.

“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,” said Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report and executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

“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,” said Epstein.

The new report reveals that adults think:

  • Black girls seem older than white girls of the same age.
  • Black girls need less nurturing than white girls.
  • Black girls need less protection than white girls.
  • Black girls need to be supported less than white girls.
  • Black girls need to be comforted less than white girls.
  • Black girls know more about adult topics than white girls.
  • Black girls know more about sex than white girls.

The study applied statistical analysis to a survey of 325 adults from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and educational levels across the United States. Across the four age brackets examined, the most significant differences in adult perceptions were found in relation to girls in mid-childhood (ages 5-9) and early adolescence (10-14), continuing to a lesser degree in the 15 to 19-year-old group.

Biases revealed by the study may shed new light on why black girls are consistently disciplined more harshly than white girls. The report authors point out that educators, school-based police officers and officials across the juvenile justice system often have significant discretion in their decision making, including for minor, subjective infractions such as dress code violations, disobedience and disruptive behavior.

Until now, few scholars have thoroughly investigated why black girls are subjected to differential disciplinary treatment, such as:

  • Black girls are five times more likely to be suspended as white girls, and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys.
  • Black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system as white girls.

“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 report coauthor Jamilia Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University. “We urge action that preserves childhood for all.”

The report calls for further study into the adultification of black girls and its consequences, training for teachers and law enforcement officials on adultification, policy reforms, and for the voices of black girls to be honored and elevated.

Explore the report: “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.”

Share a new social video encouraging conversation on #GirlhoodInterrupted.

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Georgetown University Law Center is a global leader in legal education and the preeminent U.S. law school based in the nation’s capital. Georgetown Law equips students to succeed in a rapidly evolving legal environment and to make a profound difference in the world, guided by the school's motto, “Law is but the means, justice is the end.”

Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality works with policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and advocates to develop effective policies and practices that alleviate poverty and inequality in the United States.

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Tanya Weinberg
Georgetown Law
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