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Young Black Girls Face 'Adultification'


A new study says black girls are viewed as more adult and needing less protection than white girls do. The impact of these impressions affect the quality of the education they receive and how severely they're punished in school and, ultimately, the justice system. The authors of this study join us now - Dr. Jamilia Blake from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and Rebecca Epstein is here with me in our studio in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

REBECCA EPSTEIN: Great to be here.


MARTÍNEZ: All right, Dr. Blake, let's start with you. As the lead researcher, tell me why you wanted to do this study.

BLAKE: Well, I was really motivated by what we know about the discipline experiences of black girls. Black girls are oversuspended, and so I wanted to understand why that was happening. And what we thought, building off the work of other researchers that have looked at this in black boys, is perhaps it's this adultification (ph) that is guiding black girls' punitive experiences in social justice systems.

MARTÍNEZ: Your study shows that - and you mentioned that word already, adultification, that that happens. Black girls between the ages of 5 and 9 are perceived as being much older than they actually are. What were some of the questions, Dr. Blake, that you asked the people in the survey?

BLAKE: So we asked them, do black girls need more protection? Do Black girls be more comforting? Do black girls know more about adult topics, such as sex? So we asked some very direct questions that you wouldn't expect a 5-year-old to know about. Right? You would - and you would expect a 5-year-old to need comforting and nurturing. Again, it's really shocking.

MARTÍNEZ: Rebecca, as a director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, what kind of impact do these perceptions have on the lives of these young black girls?

EPSTEIN: We think the impact is significant. The data is clear that black girls are punished more harshly than white girls in school and in the juvenile justice system.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, when you talk about punishment, how are they punished more harshly, in what way?

EPSTEIN: Black girls are suspended at five times the rates of white girls. And they're actually suspended at twice the rate of white boys. We know that teachers more often call the police on black girls and that black girls' cases are less likely to be dropped by prosecutors. Prosecutors use their discretion to drop more cases against white girls than black girls.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm going to make a little bit of a leap here, Rebecca. If these thoughts and these kind of feelings are ingrained in someone when it comes to looking at a girl who is 5 years old, when these people are on juries and they have to rule on adult black women, do you think one transfers over to the other, one sticks around long enough to make those tough choices?

EPSTEIN: Well, it seems clear that when we are projecting these perceptions onto black girls as early as age 5, that's a critical stage of development. And it does last, according to our research, all the way up through high school. So as girls are forming their view of the world and their place in it and their relationship to others, they are getting this feedback that they don't need nurturing or protection. And that's likely to very much affect their long-term outcomes, including their outlook on life as adults.

MARTÍNEZ: So Dr. Blake, you're a black woman. You're an educator. Did you have a personal connection to this study?

BLAKE: Yeah. As a black woman and formerly a black girl, I have a personal connection because, you know, as we've seen from comments from other women across the country, that this is true to the experience of black girls - that they're seen as being more adult-like and not needing innocence. So it really hits home.

And, you know, what I'm now kind of struggling with, which has been asked of me many times, is what do we do with this information? What do parents do with this information? You know, we have some ideas of what we do for teachers and those in, you know, the criminal justice system on preparing them to address this bias. But how can parents protect against this bias?

EPSTEIN: I would add that the resounding response from the community is duh.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

EPSTEIN: So many black women have said, we knew this was happening. Of course this happened to us. This is not news. But what we've done is put a name to the phenomenon and provided some data to prove that it's happening. And with that evidence, we do hope to start a national conversation about how to recognize and address this insidious form of implicit bias.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Blake - and I'm sure, as Rebecca said, that you kind of maybe knew where the results were going to go. What did you think?

BLAKE: I had this surprise moment because I didn't expect adultification to emerge at age 5. And that was a little bit disheartening 'cause just to think that you're seeing a 5-year-old, 6-year-old, a 7-year-old as being more adult-like saddens me. And from my conversations with, you know, women who've reached out to me across the country, they feel the same way.

But on the other hand, I was excited because we had one potential explanation for what might be underlying the punitive experiences of black girls in schools and in the juvenile justice system. So it's a starting point, as Rebecca indicated, to start a national conversation and move us forward to more scholarship in this area and the development of policies and training to address this implicit bias.

MARTÍNEZ: Authors of "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure Of Black Girls' Childhood." Dr. Jamilia Blake and Rebecca Epstein, thank you very much.

EPSTEIN: Thank you.

BLAKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.