Why are black girls treated more harshly by schools and the juvenile justice system than white girls who behave the same way? A new study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality suggests a contributing cause: the “adultification” of black girls.
The Casey-funded report, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, found that adults viewed black girls “as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls of the same age, especially between 5–14 years old.” When compared with white girls, black girls were perceived as:
- needing less nurturing, protection, support and comfort;
- being more independent; and
- knowing more about adult topics, including sex.
The implications of the report’s finding are far reaching, according to Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the center. “Simply put, if authorities in public systems view black girls as less innocent, less needing of protection and generally more like adults, it appears likely that they would also view black girls as more culpable for their actions and, on that basis, punish them more harshly despite their status as children.”
The study builds on previous research, including studies that found black boys are seen as older and more culpable than their white peers. According to the report:
Adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence. 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.
To further inform policy and practice in child-serving systems, the report recommends additional research to determine the causal connection between the adultification of black girls and existing disparities in negative outcomes.
"Girlhood Interrupted is further evidence that public systems serving children must be vigilant in identifying, addressing and reducing inequities and committed to assessing the effectiveness of their strategies for children of color,” says Michael Laracy, Casey’s director of policy reform and advocacy.
Read the study