Study: Police see black children as less innocent and less young than white children

"Black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious," researchers wrote

Published March 11, 2014 2:21PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>  bikeriderlondon </a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
( bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock)

In a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked college students and police officers to estimate the ages of young children who they were told had committed a crime (both misdemeanors and felonies). In both groups, respondents were far more likely to overestimate the ages of young black boys than young white boys; they were also less likely to view black children as innocent.

"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," study author and professor of psychology at UCLA Phillip Atiba Goff said of the study. "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."

The goal of the study, according to researchers, was to determine the extent to which respondents dehumanized young black children, and how this racist dehumanization can lead to violence and unjust treatment. "[I]f human childhood affords protections against harsh, adult-like treatment, then in contexts where these children are dehumanized, they can be treated with adult severity" -- specifically in the criminal justice system, researchers wrote.

As Philip Bump at the Wire notes, college students tended to overestimate the ages of young boys who were presented as having committed a felony by 4.53 years, meaning that 13 and 14 year old children were determined by respondents to be legal adults. Police officers tended overestimate these boys' ages by 4.59 years. Overall, researchers note, participants viewed black children aged 10 and older as "significantly less innocent than other children of every age group."

There was also a correlation between the police officers' responses and their record of using force against people suspected of a crime, specifically young black boys, though Goff noted that "future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force."

The research is a disturbing snapshot of racism in America and its consequences for black children. "Most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood," researchers wrote, "black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious."

"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. "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."


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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