Outlets have gone crazy over a study released Tuesday that could explain the disparate outcomes between black girls and white girls in the juvenile justice system, public schools and other institutions.
“Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” a study released by Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Income Inequality, claimed that black girls suffered from “adultification,” “the social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children ‘in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations’ (and in part based on race.)”
Researchers analyzed a group of adults and found that overwhelmingly, the survey participants considered black girls between the ages of five and 19 more adult and “less innocent” than their white female counterparts. Many of the participants rated black girls as more more independent, more knowledgeable about sex, and in need of less comfort than white girls.
These findings could explain why black girls are punished more in public schools or treated differently in the justice system, researchers said, but such work on “precise causal connection” between adultification and different treatment was beyond their report.
Outlets ran with the study, with some acting like it was proof of racism amongst Americans. Vox published the headline “A new study shows even 5-year-olds can’t escape racism,” while the researchers themselves called for potential policy changes and reform in schools.
However, there are several problems with holding this study up as proof that young black girls are suffering from another racial stereotype. There’s legitimate reason to believe America sees black girls differently than white girls and treats them accordingly, but this study doesn’t offer anything substantial to validate the theory.
A major issue with the study is the size of its representation. Researchers only surveyed 325 people, which represents about .000001 percent of the United States population. It’s worth noting that the average poll uses 1,000 people. About 62 percent of respondents were women and almost 70 percent had higher than a high school degree. This sample doesn’t reflect the population at large, so it’s hard to attribute the study’s findings as proof or representation as to how black girls are seen in this country.
Other areas of concern are the questions researchers asked participants. The questions, vague themselves, asked things like “How much do Black [or white] females seem older than their age?” “How much do Black [or white] females need to be supported?” and “How much do Black [or white] females need to be comforted?”
These questions do not necessarily point to signs of adulthood or adult behavior. Rather, the answers could be pointing to some very real problems in the black community, like teen pregnancy, etc. It’s worth asking why respondents answered overwhelming in favor of them before immediately attributing some underlying bias.
The questions, and responses, actually seem to point to a second understanding of “adultification,” which refers to the “process of socialization, in which children function at a more mature developmental stage because of situational context and necessity, especially in low resource community environments.”
While how America perceives young black girls and treats them is certainly worth examining, it should probably be done on a larger scale to more accurately represent the population and include questions that better point to signs of adulthood.
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