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Consequences When African-American Boys Are Seen As Older


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend the next part of the program talking about some new conversations people are having about the way we look and talk about kids, both boys and girls. In a few minutes, we'll dip into the debate over whether we should stop calling some girls bossy as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg suggests we should. She says it dampens girls' desire for leadership. We're going to have a variety of opinions about that.

But first, we're going to take a closer look at some new research about the way some boys are viewed by adults. This work was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And it found that African-American boys as young as 10 years old were significantly less likely to be viewed as children than their white peers. The report suggests that this could have serious implications for the way African-American boys are viewed by the criminal justice system and by society as a whole.

The title of that report is "The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children." Philip Atiba Goff is that one of the lead authors of that research. He's also an assistant professor of social psychology at UCLA, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

PHILIP ATIBA GOFF: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: What inspired you to take a look at this issue? What made you think about this?

GOFF: Well, having been a young black man myself, having grown up in integrated spaces, I have had a chance to see the ways in which young black men get treated differently. But have to say, what inspired me to this research in particular was research that had been done previously showing that black boys, in particular, are seen as older than they are. And seeing the ways in which black boys get treated differently in the criminal justice system, for instance, that black boys are 18 times more likely to be tried as an adult than are white boys.

MARTIN: For the same offenses?

GOFF: For the exact same offenses. That's right.

MARTIN: So how did you go about studying this question or framing this question?

GOFF: Well, we started simple and then got more complex. We first just showed people pictures of boys of various ages and of various races, and asked them to guess how old they were. But as we kept going, we said in a criminal justice context where this matters the most, they would have information about something that the boy was suspected of. So we had them suspected of misdemeanors.

And we describe the misdemeanor like vandalism or getting into a scuffle at school or they were suspected of felonies like car theft or something like that. We have that next to the picture and just people how old does this person look. And replicating previous work by Sandra Graham, Brian Lowery, Jennifer Eberhardt, other folks who had found similar kinds of things, people saw the black children as much older than the white children of the same age suspected of the same crime.

MARTIN: At what age does this affect start to be seen? How young can a boy be before he starts to be seen as older than he really is?

GOFF: So there's some converging evidence that it starts around the age that puberty starts so at the onset of teenage years and adolescence. That's about as early as it can start. And then obviously, by the time that folks get to adulthood, then everybody gets seen kind of the same way.

MARTIN: What do you think are the consequences of this kind of perception gap?

GOFF: Well, I can think about, right now, my godchildren who are very excited to be thought of as older than they are. Every kid can't wait to become an adult. But here, I think the consequences are much less innocent and endearing than that. When adults see children, we see people that are in need of protection, people that we want to help and keep separate from the worst that society has to do. When we see adults, we don't feel that same kind of need.

And when we rob children of that protection of childhood, then they can be treated like adults in the criminal justice system, they can be punished more harshly, they can be given less of the benefit of the doubt. We try less hard to help them understand their mistakes, and we believe less that they can, overtime, fix their mistakes. So all of the good things we want to give to children are taken early from black children, and that can't happen.

MARTIN: Yeah. You call this study dehumanizing black children. Why is it - I'm curious about why you call it dehumanizing black children as opposed to simple bias. I mean, how do you - why is this not just prejudice against black people?

GOFF: Well, when we think about childhood, the essence of childhood is that children need to be protected, at least in the modern U.S. And there's a long line of literature showing that. When we see people as children, but all of a sudden, they don't need to be protected, we're removing basic, human considerations from them. And that's what we found throughout her studies. So the first set, and I think the set of studies that are getting the most attention out of this are the age over-estimation stuff.

But the stuff that's at the back end of this paper - we show that people think of childhood as a less essential category when they're thinking of childhood as something the black children have as opposed to white children. That's a form of dehumanization when you're taking basic human protections away. Prejudice is just I don't like you. Dehumanization is I can do things to you that I can't do to other people that are in the human family.

MARTIN: I'm thinking that people who follow these kinds of stories can think of a number of examples where this issue might have come into play, but I think the issue around the treatment of a minor that is on a lot of people's minds, if they know no other examples, would be the Trayvon Martin case.

GOFF: Yes.

MARTIN: Is this an example of that in your opinion?

GOFF: Well, so the scientist in me says it always depends. I can't tell you what was in George Zimmerman's mind. I wasn't there. I don't know what happened that night, but certainly, in the way that that case played out in public, we saw instances of it where all of a sudden, a 17-year-old boy was portrayed as a manly thug. He was seen sometimes by people to be older than he actually was. He was a boy in a man's body was something I heard multiple times. And you don't hear that when it's white children in the same kind of context.

MARTIN: It's interesting 'cause I think the flipside of this is I think there will be some people who would argue that black boys do act older or are tougher. And so I want to know if there's any evidence of that or even if it's an interactive phenomenon where people treat them as they're older so that they act older.

GOFF: So that's a great question and as the scientist, again, I have to say it depends, but I think there's a way to think about it slightly differently. Not that, well, they're treated as older because they deserve it. Think about a young boy at his bar mitzvah or at a high school graduation when they're still 17 or at prom or at a public speaking event. When that's a white boy in a suit acting as an adult doing a wonderful job, parents and friends think about - my goodness how grown-up you can act, which means there are situations that cause individuals to act like adults before they are adults.

We train people into being adults. In black boys' lives, what we know from developmental psychology is there are more situations that demand that they be adults than there are in the average white boys' lives. Not everybody, not every black child has this, but on average, more black boys get asked to be in more situations where they're acting like adults than white boys. And the problem is we rarely see our black children with the basic human privilege of getting to act like children.

MARTIN: I know that a lot of your research was done with police officers, mostly white police officers, to test their perceptions of black children as well as their overall propensity toward bias, right, to have negative views of black people in general as well as to test their perceptions of black children per se. I am curious to know whether black police officers demonstrated the same pattern of misperception of black children's ages and the same patterns of bias that you determined.

GOFF: That's a great question. So let me answer a question I think is embedded within that first, which is that we weren't looking to see if police officers were especially likely to show these biases, but to see what the consequences were. So police officers, unfortunately, are from the human family. They have the same biases, in this case, as the undergraduate university students and the lay public that we surveyed.

I wish we had more black police officers in our study 'cause then I could give you a good answer. But because we had so few, we weren't able to see whether there were large differences between them. And that's certainly what some follow-up research, we hope, will take a look at.

MARTIN: What would you hope to happen as a result of this research?

GOFF: Well, again, this research is about translating previous findings from the laboratory to the world. And so both the purpose of the Center for Policing Equity and my particular research lab is to kind of export, to give away the findings of social psychology to the places where the consequences are most dire. So what we're hoping to do is to find interventions that will reduce this disparity. So for instance, if officers ask the age of the person that they're stopping or they're talking to, maybe they can remember oh, this is a human child. At 16 and at 15, they may look like an adult to me.

My mind may see them as a threatening individual for all kinds of reasons, but let me help them to stay a child. Also, I think it makes sense that we all have this perception because when you said, you know, in general, people think that they act that way and that's why we treat them that way. And if that makes sense, then we need to change the ways in which we portray black men and boys. We need to portray black boys in the state of childhood so that we can protect them in that state and keep them in that state before the early onset of adulthood that all parents fear for their kids.

MARTIN: Can I ask you - since we started our conversation talking about part of it is your own experience of the world, when you saw this research, when you started digging deeply into this research, do you mind if I ask how it made you feel?

GOFF: Well, most of the research that I am most proud of had this kind of dual effect on me where I'm happy to know so that we can do something about it. And I am distressed that we didn't know earlier because it means that we're just starting some of these things now. And I think that's the conundrum of living in contemporary, American democracy is that we've come so far with so far to go. There's so many challenges we haven't met, and that can be distressing or inspiring depending on the mood that you're in when it hits you. And it usually hits me in both moods.

MARTIN: Philip Atiba Goff is an assistant professor of social psychology at UCLA. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOFF: Again, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.