In the Trump era, we’ve been reminded that outright hatred of African Americans still exists. White nationalists like Richard Spencer have been given a platform, and some even occupy high level positions in the White House.
But we also can’t dismiss the way that racism infects the entire culture in a way that can affect all of us. The phrase “unconscious bias” is being used lately to describe that form of racism. Recent research explains one of the ways it is manifest.
The report from Georgetown University law school’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, released Tuesday, found that black girls, particularly those age 5 to 14, are seen as more sexually mature and know more about adult topics than white girls in the same peer group. The result, authors Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez wrote, is that black girls experience “adultification,” and are not afforded the same childhood benefits as whites.
“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,” Epstein, the center’s executive director, wrote in a statement…
“Ultimately, adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence,” the authors wrote. “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.”
I was reminded that a study published by the American Psychological Association back in 2014 reported similar findings about how black boys are viewed.
Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.
I am sure that the vast majority of participants in these studies would denounce racism, especially the kind that is espoused by someone like Richard Spencer. And I’m sure that their family, friends and coworkers would describe them as good people who don’t have a racist bone in their body. All of that is probably true. And yet they are contributing to the kind of racism felt by black girls and boys on a daily basis.
Stereotypes about African Americans abound in this culture. For example, black men are seen as angry and black women as combative. There are certainly times those descriptions are accurate when it comes to individuals. But how much of that is due to the fact that, as children, they were viewed as needing less nurturing, less support, and less comfort due to this kind of adultification? Anger and combativeness are functional in the sense that they protect children from being robbed of their innocence at such an early age.
The researchers in both of these studies are right to point to this kind of bias as the root cause of black children being disciplined more often in schools and considered a threat by law enforcement. The most obvious example is Tamir Rice. The Cleveland officer who shot him a mere two seconds after arriving on the scene assumed that the 12 year-old was actually 18 and saw him as a threat. Many times the consequences of that kind of bias aren’t as severe as a dead child. But obviously it happens.
It’s hard for many of us to recognize and accept this kind of bias because it is difficult to see and painful to acknowledge. The seeds of it are not biological, but are incorporated in millions of tiny bits over the course of simply living in a culture that has been infused with racism since our founding. Complicity and guilt should not be associated with the act of merely absorbing those bits, but in refusing to acknowledge them or being complacent about doing what we can to root them out of ourselves individually and the systems that perpetuate them.