“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” -Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
It is a sin to kill innocence. This is especially true if that innocence is the innocence of childhood. That is why I remember reading a passage from Harvard professor Robin Bernstein award-winning book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights where “angelic white children were contrasted with [black] pickanninies so grotesque as to suggest that only white children were children.” Just as the doomed mockingbird, Tom Robinson, is the central symbol of Harper Lee’s classic, a new study now tells us that young African American girls are mockingbirds in our society today.
Previously I have written here that black Americans face a higher risk of imprisonment than white Americans and constitute almost 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. One reason for the disparity may be racial bias. But now, a study from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality reveals black girls may face such bias while still in kindergarten. According to the findings, black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls from the ages of 5-14.
The study applied statistical analysis to a survey of 325 adults from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and educational levels across the United States. Across the four age brackets examined, the most significant differences in adult perceptions were found in relation to girls in mid-childhood (ages 5-9) and early adolescence (10-14), continuing to a lesser degree in the 15 to 19-year-old group. No statistically significant differences were found in the 0-4 age group.
The new report reveals that adults think:
-Black girls seem older than white girls of the same age.
-Black girls need less nurturing than white girls.
-Black girls need less protection than white girls.
-Black girls need to be supported less than white girls.
-Black girls need to be comforted less than white girls.
-Black girls are more independent than white girls.
-Black girls know more about adult topics than white girls.
-Black girls know more about sex than white girls.
Furthermore, the study finds:
-Black girls are five times more likely to be suspended as white girls, and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys.
-Black girls make up just under 16% of the female school population, but account for 28% of referrals to law enforcement, and 37% of arrests. White girls account for 50% the female school population, but only 34% of referrals and 30% of arrests.
-Black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system as white girls.
-Black girls are 20% more likely to be charged with a crime than white girls.
-Black girls are 20% more likely than white girls to be detained.
-Black girls are less likely to benefit from prosecutorial discretion. One study found that prosecutors dismissed only 30% of cases against black girls, while dismissing 70% of cases against white girls.
The report authors call for further study into the adultification of black girls and its possible causal connections to negative outcomes across public systems, including education, juvenile justice and child welfare. They also recommend providing teachers and law enforcement officials with training on adultification to help counteract the negative consequences of this bias against black girls.
The study discusses pervasive stereotypes of black women as hypersexualized and combative are reaching into our schools and playgrounds and helping rob black girls of the protections other children enjoy. “Given established discrepancies in law enforcement and juvenile court practices that disproportionately affect Black girls, the perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.”