In her 2016 book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, writer and activist Monique Morris wrote about the “age compression” experienced by black girls in America. Black women are often stereotyped as dominant or hypersexual, and black girls, in turn, are frequently treated as adults. “Half of us look older than our age,” one 13-year-old tells her, speaking about her experiences evading arrest for truancy. “By whose standards?” Morris writes in response.
A disturbing new report confirms that 13-year-old’s assessment of how she is perceived by the world. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, details what it calls the “adultification” of young black girls. Compared to white girls of the same age, black girls are perceived as needing less nurturing, comfort, and protection. They are also perceived as being more independent and knowing more about sex and other adult topics. And the bias begins early: Black girls are seen as older and less innocent than their white peers starting as young as age 5.
The phenomenon of viewing black students as miniature adults means they are likelier to be punished harshly within the school system, and their cases are likelier to be passed along to the juvenile justice system rather than handled within the school. Think Progress reported last year that black preschool students were 3.6 times likelier than white children to receive an out-of-school suspension, for example. A paper published earlier this year in the journal Urban Education found cases where elementary-school girls were handcuffed and removed from school property in police cars for infractions as small as having a tantrum. Overall, black girls receive out-of-school suspensions at higher rates than any other group of female students in the American public school system.
The new report builds on experimental research on how black boys are perceived as older and more criminal than their peers. Social psychologist Phillip Goff has found that black boys are perceived as older and less innocent than their white peers starting at age 10. In one experiment, undergraduate subjects were shown photographs of white, black, or Latino boys between ages 10 and 17, alongside descriptions of crimes. The subjects overestimated the ages of the black boys by an average of 4.5 years, and found them likelier to be guilty of crimes.
For black girls, like black boys, “adultification” means their minor misbehavior is likelier to be read as potentially dangerous or criminal. Take the police officer who notoriously broke up a McKinney, Texas, pool party in 2015. He pulled a girl’s hair and forced her to the ground while she begged him to stop and asked for her mother; she was 15, but it was obvious she was being handled like an adult criminal. The officer “did not think he was restraining a helpless teenaged girl, but a ‘black woman,’ with all the stereotypes and stigma that includes,” Huffington Post commentator Zeba Blay wrote at the time. Meanwhile, black girls in particular are often seen as sexually mature, even sexually aggressive, at young ages. And “adultification” also has implications for the child welfare system, which was designed to provide protection and nurturing—which black girls are seen as needing less of than white girls are.
The new report traces “adultification” back to chattel slavery, when black children were put to work as early as their toddler years. They were rarely allowed time to play, and were punished for behaving like the children they were. In many ways, that pattern has continued.