Black Boys Lose Assumption of Innocence at an Early Age

Black boys as young as 10 years old are more likely than their White peers to be mistaken as older, less innocent, and more appropriate targets for police violence if accused of a crime, according to research conducted by UCLA psychologists. In their study, abstracted here, the researchers examined “whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers”, and tested three theories: 1) that Black boys are seen as less childlike than their White peers; 2) that characteristics associated with childhood are less frequently applied in thinking about Black boys relative to White boys; and 3) these trends would be more obvious among people who dehumanized Black males by associating them with apes. The researchers conducted studies of 4 different groups (including police officers and college students) which supported and confirmed their theories.

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.” You can read a more detailed description of this study and the results here.

Most alarming were the results of the police officers study, as the researchers determined that those officers who dehumanized blacks in psychological questionnaires (associating them with apes) were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize Blacks. While the researchers noted that further study was necessary to clarify this finding, this study supports our gut instinct to instruct our sons, even our little boys, about how to behave during any encounter with the police.

As blogger Christopher “Flood The Drummer” Norris in The Good Men Project website notes here, the sad essence of these findings is that our young boys don’t get to be young and innocent for long. As Norris notes, “Black boys aren’t so different; they want what every other adolescent has: the ability to make mistakes.” If our boys are consciously or unconsciously being held to a higher standard by the adults they interact with, small wonder that they can have a hard time meeting it in school and in the world.

What can we parents do at home to counteract this? We can give our young sons time and space to be “boys”, guide them but try not to make them “little men” too soon. We can also focus on how negative media images of young Black men can distort public perception and make people more comfortable with their negative thinking. Check out “Media Portrayal of Black Youth Contributes to Racial Tension” here, and check out the Opportunity Agenda website here for lots of information about media images of Black males.

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