by Lindsey E. Jones
Recent scholarship in the history of black women and the carceral state illustrates the extent to which systems of criminal justice and law enforcement have both historically failed to protect black female victims of domestic violence and criminalized black women who rise up in their own defense.
Black Girls, Domestic Violence, and the Limits of Self-Defense
by Lindsey E. Jones
This article previously appeared in the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.
“Legal systems in this country explicitly and implicitly render black women defenseless against intra- and interracial violence.”
The case of Bresha Meadows, an African American teenage girl in Ohio, is a sad commentary on the failure of the state to protect victims of domestic violence. After a lifetime of watching him physically and psychologically abuse her mother—and of being subjected to threats and verbal abuse, along with her siblings—Bresha allegedly shot her father to death while he slept on July 28, 2016. While her mother’s family and her attorney consider her actions to have been in self-defense, the county prosecutor has charged Bresha with aggravated murder. It remains to be seen whether she will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. At stake is the possibility that Bresha, who marked her fifteenth birthday in juvenile hall just weeks after her arrest, could spend the rest of her life in prison if convicted as an adult.
While the case is making its way through the courts and the families of Brandi Meadows (Bresha’s mother) and Jonathan Meadows (Bresha’s deceased father) share conflicting stories with news media about the latter’s personality and propensity toward violence, as well as their conflicting opinions about premeditation versus self-defense, it is important to note that this case is neither isolated nor entirely new. Recent scholarship in the history of black women and the carceral state illustrates the extent to which systems of criminal justice and law enforcement have both historically failed to protect black female victims of domestic violence and criminalized black women who rise up in their own defense.
“Survivors of intimate partner violence dramatically overrepresented among incarcerated black women.”
Historian Kali Gross, in providing historical context to the case of Marissa Alexander, argues that the state’s willingness to condemn this woman for defending herself against an abusive husband points back through centuries of American history to “the legacies of an exclusionary politics of protection whereby black women were not entitled to the law’s protection, though they could not escape its punishment.” Gross traces the ways in which “racialized, gendered notions of protection” have, from the seventeenth century on, shaped legal systems in this country that explicitly and implicitly render black women defenseless against intra- and interracial violence. She argues that this exclusionary politics of protection fuels the current mass incarceration crisis, with survivors of intimate partner violence dramatically overrepresented among incarcerated black women.1
Bresha Meadows’s case exemplifies Gross’s concept of the exclusionary politics of protection. This past May, Bresha ran away from home to the home of an aunt, Martina Latessa. Latessa, a police officer working in a domestic violence unit in Cleveland, was forced to return Bresha to her father, who had reported the girl as having been kidnapped by her aunt. Latessa reported her brother-in-law to Family Services, which resulted in an agent interviewing Brandi Meadows about the allegations of abuse—as Jonathan Meadows sat beside her. Neither law enforcement nor the state bureaucracy could protect Brandi Meadows and her children from this abuse, which she and her family assert intensified after this incident. As a result of the state’s failure to end the cycle of trauma in her family, Bresha Meadows took matters into her own hands—and was charged with aggravated murder, for which she could potentially spend the rest of her life in prison.
Gross’s essay compellingly reveals the intersections of race, gender, and class in black women’s hyper-vulnerability to domestic violence; state failure to prevent or put a stop to said violence; and the too-common outcome of black women being incarcerated for offenses resulting from attempting to defend themselves against domestic violence. However, as the case of Bresha Meadows illustrates, there is another vector of identity that often doesn’t appear in our historical analyses of black females and the carceral state: that is, age.2
“For black women in the Jim Crow South—as in antebellum times—domestic violence was constitutive of domestic labor.”
Where race, gender, and class have worked together to create the conditions discussed above, the erasure of age difference has historically created disadvantages for black girl victims of domestic violence. One prominent example recently provided by historian LaShawn Harris is that of Virginia Christian. Often referred to as the first woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Christian was in reality a seventeen-year-old girl when she was killed by electric chair in 1912—a fact that her advocates hoped would persuade the state to show her mercy.3
Virginia Christian belonged to a working-class black family in Hampton, Virginia, and needed to work in order to contribute to her household, including her disabled mother. From the age of thirteen, she served as a laundress for a middle-class white family named Belote in Hampton. During a dispute about missing jewelry that turned physical, Virginia killed the matriarch of the family—a crime she confessed to committing in self-defense. Harris argues that “Christian’s act of self-defense delineated working-class African American women’s impetuous ways of protecting their bodies and their often last attempts to seek and secure long-awaited personal justice—especially when legal protection seemed beyond their reach.” While there is no archival evidence that Ida Belote had laid hands upon Virginia Christian prior to this altercation, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that for black women in the Jim Crow South—as in antebellum times—domestic violence was constitutive of domestic labor, the racially prescribed set of occupations for black women and girls.4
Christian’s response was most immediately triggered by Belote’s accusations of theft and subsequent physical assault on March 18, 1912, but it is conceivable that she was also responding to other physical and psychological traumas accumulated over three years of working in the Belote household.
The analogy from Virginia Christian in 1912 to Bresha Meadows in 2016 is imperfect, but these cases both illustrate the extent to which the state has failed to consider age in evaluating black girls’ actions in self-defense from domestic violence. Sadly, over a century later, Bresha’s advocates find themselves making very similar demands of a system that hasn’t changed enough since Virginia’s trial, and employing very similar tactics in their pursuit of mercy for this abused adolescent girl.
“In the minds of whites, the accused, regardless of her age, was a deviant and vulgar black murderess that had to be punished for her crime.”
In the case of Virginia Christian, the Commonwealth of Virginia ignored evidence that Christian committed the crime at sixteen years of age in order to prevent her minority status from impeding its plan to execute her. Harris argues that, “in the minds of whites, the accused, regardless of her age, was a deviant and vulgar black murderess that had to be punished for her crime; essentially, Christians’ race trumped her gender and age. By denying Christian of her adolescent status, the State of Virginia sought to punish her to the full extent of the law.”5
Black and white Americans wrote letters and circulated petitions pleading with the Commonwealth to consider Christian’s youth as a factor in her crime and her punishment and to commute her sentence from execution to life in prison. In the end, neither Christian’s appeal to self-defense, nor her advocates’ appeal to adolescence, could spare her from the lethal retribution of the state.
In a throwback to the campaign to spare Virginia Christian’s life in 1912, advocates of Bresha Meadows are writing letters and circulating petitions in the hope that local prosecutors take into account her age and her status as a survivor of domestic violence as they proceed with charges against her. Because of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to execute a person for a crime committed under eighteen years of age, the death penalty is not on the table for Bresha. However, because prosecutors could decide to try her in adult court, it is a real possibility that she could be sentenced to life in prison.
A century after Virginia Christian’s advocates passionately and strategically petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia for life imprisonment, Bresha’s advocates argue that no adolescent should spend life in prison—especially not a girl pushed toward drastic action by a lifetime of trauma and abuse. There is thankfully still time for the prosecutors of Trumbull County to give real weight to Bresha Meadows’ traumatic life history, and to the fact that it spans fifteen short years, as they decide what action to pursue.
Lindsey E. Jones is a PhD Candidate in History of Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a 2016-2018 Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation project, “‘Not a Place of Punishment’: the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, 1915-1940,” historicizes the education and incarceration of black girls by examining Virginia’s only reformatory for delinquent African American girls. Follow her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.
1. Kali N. Gross, “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection,” Journal of American History 102, no.1 (2015), 25–33.
2. For a contemporary examination of black girls, interpersonal violence, and the carceral state, see Jody Miller, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality, and Gendered Violence (New York: NYU Press, 2008).
3. Lashawn Harris, “The ‘Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Virginia Christian’: Southern Black Women, Crime & Punishment in Progressive Era Virginia,” Journal of Social History 47, no.4 (2014), 922–42.
4. See, for instance: Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Sarah Haley, “‘Like I Was a Man’: Chain Gangs, Gender, and the Domestic Carceral Sphere in Jim Crow Georgia,” Signs 39 (Autumn 2013).
5. Harris cites “a 1910 Virginia statue prohibiting death to ‘any child under seventeen years of age who is charged with any felony, and never having been heretofore convicted in any court of a misdemeanor’” (931).
“Black Lives Matter has cast a strobe-light on contemporary myths of racial progress, arguing correctly that the criminal justice system represents a gateway to a panoramic system of racial and class and gender and sexuality oppression.”
The Black Lives Matter policy agenda represents one of the most important agenda setting documents collectively produced by black activists in a generation. The proposals, authored by over fifty different civil rights organizations, offers a panoramic narrative, diagnosis, and political alternatives to the intricacies of structural racism, state-sanctioned violence, and the institutional exploitation of black bodies across the nation.
“A Vision For Black Lives” builds on, expands, and goes beyond policy agendas promoted by a range of civil rights and Black Power era groups, including the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, NAACP, SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), CORE, Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity, and Martin Luther King Jr’s SCLC. In its poignant urging of the United States to “end the war on black people,” the document is reminiscent of the “Gary Agenda,” the historic 1972 document that emanated from the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.
That meeting of over 8,000 black delegates from across black America’s political and ideological spectrum proved to be a watershed event, albeit one that was hamstrung by an inability to translate grassroots insurgency into tangible political power, accountability, and resources. Gary, like the Black Power Conferences from the late 1960s and the African Liberation Day and Sixth Pan-African Congress of the 1970s, sought to modernize the black convention movements that could be traced back to the Reconstruction era, where black activists organized for political power in slavery’s aftermath.
By the early 20th century efforts like the “Niagara Movement” faltered due to a lack of resources and political infighting. For a time, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association cast a shadow large enough to encompass the complexity of black life, uniting economic strivers with revolutionary activists in developing a black agenda broad enough to attract millions of black people across several continents.
Garvey’s decline fractured aspects of black political life, but not dreams for a cohesive vision, plan, and strategy for black liberation, a cause taken up during the Depression and Second World War by a variety of groups including the Southern Negro Youth Congress, National Negro Labor Congress, The Nation of Islam, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Council of African Affairs. The NAACP’s membership reached almost a half-million by 1946, the closest it would ever come to mass membership in scale. Black political leaders pushed an agenda to the left of the New Deal creating space for the global popularity of Paul Robeson, the political resurrection of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the insider status of Mary McLeod Bethune and Ralph Bunche.
Organizers like Ella Baker in New York City and Septima Clarke in South Carolina, worked the lower frequencies of black life, working at the margins of the black quotidian: the ordinary black folk from New York to South Carolina whose dreams remained disarmingly pragmatic ones focused preserving hope and dignity.
The Black Lives Matter Movement is rooted in this wider Black Freedom Struggle, one whose two dominant branches are reflected in the Civil Rights and Black Power era. BLM activists’ successful adoption of non-violence is rooted in the civil rights era even as their unapologetic focus on structural racism, community control, and political self-determination reflects the Black Power era’s radical politics. Surprisingly, so does the movement’s focus on intersectionality. Popularly remembered as deeply masculinist, unapologetically sexist, and homophobic, the Black Power era proved to be more complicated than such simple generalizations indicate. Despite the movement’s many political and ideological blinders, black women, queer activists, and others on the margins of African American life consciously shaped an expansive Black Power politics.
The Third World Women’s Alliance articulated a vision of radical black feminism, socialism, and Black Power militancy that made it a visionary example of cutting edge social justice movements. The Combahee River Collective gave voice to radical black lesbian feminists whose politics went to the far left of the more mainstream National Black Feminist Organization. In many ways both of these organizations reflected the black radical feminist politics revealed in Toni Cade Bambara’s groundbreaking 1970 anthology, The Black Woman, an intellectual and political intervention that ushered in Black Women’s Studies and helped give attention to the works of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Hull, and many others.
BLM activists have taken some of the best aspects of these two generations of the Black Radical Tradition and linked it with more recent efforts to promote reparations (especially by grassroots a organization like N’COBRA, although reparations go back to the formerly enslaved activist Callie House as the historian Mary Frances Berry teaches us); divestment from domestic and global racial exploitation which Jesse Jackson, especially in 1984, promoted as a hallmark of his presidential campaign; the pursuit of independent black political power that had been advocated in the post Gary era by a series of organizations including the National Black United Front, the National Black Independent Political Party, and the Black Radical Congress; the movement for economic justice that has been promoted by a spectrum of grassroots labor, community, church, and secular activists, including black nationalists in communities such as St. Petersburg, Florida, who famously booed candidate Obama in 2008 by chanting and holding signs, “What About the Black Community Obama?”
Black Lives Matter has cast a strobe-light on contemporary myths of racial progress, arguing correctly that the criminal justice system represents a gateway to a panoramic system of racial and class and gender and sexuality oppression. This intervention, while important, is incomplete without an acknowledgment of the way in which the rise of mass incarceration is connected to systems of racial segregation, voting rights denial, state-sanctioned violence and exploitation of black bodies, all while criminalizing and decimating the very communities that remain largely under assault even in the Age of Obama.
The Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Black Lives Matter has shattered conventional civil rights narratives, ones that begin with Rosa Parks, continue with King’s Dream, and sought to end with Barack Obama’s election. This version of history as a bedtime story, complete with heroic individual blacks, stalwart white allies, and the thanks of a grateful nation has only one glaring problem.
It’s a lie.
The Civil Rights era heroic period experienced pervasive anti-black violence that only increased during the Black Power era and its aftermath. What is now universally acknowledged as a moral and political good—complete with a multiracial cast of characters—was demonized in word and deed by the larger society, a denigration that became inscribed in a series of intricate anti-black legal, legislative, and policy challenges that have utterly decimated some of the gains of the era, especially for the black poor.
“A Movement For Black Lives” is essential precisely because it helps to expose what is at the root of our national amnesia regarding slavery and anti-black racism-white supremacy and its relationship to conceptions of citizenship, the rule of law, democracy, and justice. In its passionate repudiation of the political status quo and elevating the lives of the black community’s most vulnerable residents—the poor, young, elderly, trans, LGBT, mentally ill, incarcerated, ex-offenders—the BLM has produced a watershed document that once again illustrates why the black freedom struggle has always been on the cutting edge of movements for radical democracy: we have no choice.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at The University of Texas. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter @PenielJoseph.
SEPTEMBER 16, 2016
Many of my friends from college and fellow academics in the last year are focusing their anxieties on the Donald Trump campaign. A common frustration voiced among intellectuals is the disbelief that a candidate as bigoted, pig-headed, and willfully ignorant as “the Donald” could be running neck and neck with a seasoned political veteran like Hillary Clinton. This piece is not about Hillary Clinton, however. Rather, it’s about promoting a much needed discussion of what Trump’s rise really tells us. I don’t believe we have a “Donald Trump” problem in this country. The problem is much worse than that. More ominously, we have an American public problem that cuts to the very core of the quality of our democracy. Demagogues rise to power on the backs of workers, citizens, and your average “Joe” or “Jane.” They do not owe their success to their actions alone.
If Donald Trump is enjoying electoral success, it’s because the public – passively or actively – allowed it to happen. While Pew Research Center surveys do find considerable ignorance among Trump supporters – the most commonly cited reasons for supporting him have nothing to do with policy, but everything to do with personality characteristics – this trend was observed across all the front-runners, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz supporters. What makes Trump’s case more disturbing than the norm of across-the-board voter ignorance is that such a large contingent of Americans know full-well about his bigotry, and embrace it. The ascendance of Donald Trump tells us much about the quality of American character – particularly about our enduring and toxic legacy of hate, ignorance, bigotry, and white-supremacy.
Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for referring to half of Trump Supporters as “the deplorables.” She was being far too generous. Public opinion surveys over the last year or so suggest that the white supremacist contingent of Trump voters is even larger. When I say white supremacist, I’m not referring to the old-style, KKK, white robe donning and lynchings of America’s past. Rather, the contemporary form of white supremacy is more of a “hate-lite” – if such a thing exists – in terms of its supporters embracing horrible, racist stereotypes, while claiming to reject racism. Call this “color-blind” racism, dog whistle racism, coded racism – or whatever you like, but it’s clear that white supremacy never disappeared from America’s political culture.
Consider recent surveys, if you want to ascertain the size of the problem. Polls of Trump supporters and Republicans more generally from 2015 and 2016 find clear and indisputable evidence of racism and prejudice against non-white, non-Christian Americans. I review these findings below.
Irrational hatred of foreigners is pronounced on the American right. Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that in August 2015, 54 percent of Republicans, and 61 percent of Trump supporters still believed Obama was born in another country – drawing on fringe the birther conspiracy. Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters thought Obama was a Muslim, compared to 54 percent of all Republicans. The findings hadn’t changed much in 2016, when a May PPP poll found 65 percent of Trump supporters said Obama was a Muslim and 59 percent said he was born outside the U.S. The birther-Trump right is obviously impervious to evidence-based logic on anything related to Obama, considering this conspiracy theory was debunked long ago by countless sources.
Much of the right-wing Christian contingent seems set on demonizing non-believers. Most Trumpeters see “Muslim” as synonymous with “bad.” A Reuters-Ipsos June 2016 survey, for example, found that 58 percent of Trump supporters said they held a “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of Islam. This type of blanket hatred is troublesome when Pew Research Center polling finds that the vast majority of American Muslims reject terrorism, and hold moderate, rather than extreme political values. A Texas Policy Project poll from June 2016 also found that 76 percent of Republicans “somewhat supported” or “strongly supported” a blanket ban of Muslims from entering the U.S. – no doubt based on the erroneous, blanket notion that Muslims represent an imminent threat to national security.
Most Republicans and Trump supporters also embrace negative views of unauthorized immigrants. Seventy percent of Republicans agreed in an August 2016 Pew survey that “undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit serious crimes.” This view persists, despite statistics from the Public Policy Institute of California concluding that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens. The myth remains popular, despite national data over the last decade and a half showing that, as the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. grew, violent crimes rates were on the decline. On the macro- level, then, there is little merit to the idea that unauthorized immigration is destabilizing society and making us less safe. Still, 70 percent of Republicans agreed in a Fox News July 2015 survey with Donald Trump’s statement that Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The hatred was not reserved for unauthorized immigrants. Two-thirds of Trump supporters agreed in a March 2016 Pew survey that “immigrants [in general] today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care.”
Old-fashioned, anti-black racism is alive and well on the American right, despite naive academic claims that the U.S. was “getting beyond race” as early as the 1990s. Reuters polling from June 2016 finds that nearly half of Trump supporters agree that African Americans are more “violent” and “criminal” than whites. Similarly, 40 percent say African Americans are more “lazy” than whites. These findings are prominent on the reactionary right, despite social scientists’ longstanding findings that race is not a significant predictor of Americans’ level of commitment to work, or hours worked, and despite the reality that the vast majority of whites, African Americans, and Hispanics are employed. Anti-black stereotypes are not surprising. They have long been woven into U.S. political and media commentary, as seen in academic studies identifying how African Americans are far more likely to be depicted in the media as criminals and as poor, in far greater numbers than the actual number of African Americans who commit crimes or are in poverty.
After framing Trump supporters as “deplorables,” Hillary Clinton publicly apologized, rejecting “grossly generalistic” characterizations, which are “never a good idea.” Her apology was unfortunate. Generalizations are perfectly acceptable, even valuable, if they are an accurate depiction of reality. And the above data suggests that it is indeed fair to generalize about Trump voters, considering most of them are racist and xenophobic. The polls I’ve reviewed should be sobering and disturbing for Americans who call themselves supporters of equal rights and democracy, and for those who abhor irrational hatred and bigotry. America’s white supremacy culture is wide-spread indeed. Consider the following: if approximately 55 percent of the voting age population turned out in 2012, and 2016 sees similar turnout, and about half of likely voters say they are planning on voting for Trump, his support base includes approximately 28 percent of American adults – give or take a few percent because of the small number of Americans who may vote third-party. Of this 28 percent, the polls above found that approximately two-thirds can be categorized as racist in their attitudes, meaning that nearly 20 percent of American adults – or one in five – fall within the category of Trump supporting white supremacists.
In the title of this piece I spoke of the “return” of the hate culture in America. Realistically, that culture never disappeared, even if many intellectuals thought we had transcended the old racist, sexist, and homophobic battles of the past. The right-wing reactionary movement has always been there, but was waiting for a populistic, demagogic character of the Trump variety to take the reins. On a symbolic level, public discourse on issues like race and immigration speaks to an overarching and enduring culture war in America. We are in the midst of a battle for this country’s very soul, and there is much uncertainty about the path forward. Reactionary forces – organized under Trump – represent an old order, which would like to reinvigorate the racist, bigoted, white supremacist culture of the past. Progressive societal forces, as seen in the rise of social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and others, are pushing for a progressive future in which government plays a crucial role in promoting political equality between social groups, and reduces economic inequality.
I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone who they should vote for in the coming election, although I can say without hesitation that I’m entirely opposed to the continuation of the Trump-inspired, old reactionary order. I don’t know whether or not a Trump defeat would be a fatal blow to racist forces in this country. I can say this much: at some point soon, Americans will have to decide whether they want to live in a country that respects democracy and equal rights for all, or embraces the racist, fascistic politics of a white supremacist culture. The answer to which side prevails will soon be upon us.
Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org
RUBY SALES —Where Does It Hurt?
Where does it hurt? That’s a question the civil rights icon Ruby Sales learned to ask during the days of that movement. It’s a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now, but it gets at human dynamics that we are living and reckoning with. At a convening of 20 theologians seeking to re-imagine the public good of theology for this century, Ruby Sales unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, and names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of this time.
[OCG NOTE: Dr. Ruby Sales is a frequent contributor and commentator of OUR COMMON GROUND. In addition to being an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, she is an OCG Witness from the Bridge. Our visits with Dr. Sales can be found in our archives. Please do check out a couple of most important discussions that we had with her in our 2016 Season, “Hands Off Our Children: 300 Strong” Report from Field with Dr. Ruby Sales on 04/16; and, STOP THE WAR ON OUR CHILDREN™ • MARCH 18, 2016. We are proud of our association with Dr. Sales, our friendship and support from her and the Spirit House Project. Ruby Sales is a national treasure. ]
WASHINGTON — 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. The study was published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology®.
The authors noted that police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of blacks could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children. “We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.
The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.
In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
“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, also of UCLA. “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.”
Article: “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online Feb. 24, 2014; Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, and Matthew Christian Jackson, PhD; University of California, Los Angeles; Brooke Allison, PhD, and Lewis Di Leone, PhD, National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Boston; Carmen Marie Culotta, PhD, Pennsylvania State University; and Natalie Ann DiTomasso, JD, University of Pennsylvania.