Black male children viewed as less innocent than those of other races, research finds

Jeremy Thomas

Young black males may be viewed as older and less innocent, making them more likely to face police violence, according to recent research published by the American
Psychological Association.

The study, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” tested more than 150 police officers from large urban areas to determine levels of prejudice toward black people. The research focused on young black males and did not study findings for black girls.

According to the research, the officers received a questionnaire requiring them to provide age and culpability assessments for 12 scenarios that depicted male targets of a given race. Then, researchers compared the questionnaire’s findings with the individual officers’ personnel records. The results found that implicit prejudice of blacks is related to black children’s disproportionate experiences of violent encounters with police officials.

Kevin Cokley, educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies professor, said the research validates many black males’ experiences of racial prejudice from police.

“When you say this, and you kind of complain about it, some people will reject that and claim that racism is no longer a major problem,” Cokley said. “And, of course, a study of this nature sort of undermines that and indicates that racism is not over, and there are deadly consequences for black boys.”

Cokley said if young black males are seen as less childlike than their white peers, then they are treated as adults well before they actually are.

“It’s almost sort of like this idea that black males, in particular, aren’t allowed to have the childhood that other children across other races are allowed to have,” Cokley said. “So, the consequences are, in the most extreme form, death, and, in other forms, a systematic dehumanization where they are always sort of seen as threats.”

The research also pulled from other studies. In one, more than 250 university students were surveyed about the childhood innocence of infants through age 25 who were black, Latino or an unidentified race. In another, students were asked to assess the age and innocence of black, white or Latino boys ages 10-17, with photographs and descriptions of various crimes.

From birth till age 9, children were seen as equally innocent regardless of race. However, beginning at the age of 10, participants began to think of black children as significantly less innocent than other children at every age group. 

In another study, black felony suspects were viewed as four-and-a-half years older than their actual age.

Rebecca Bigler, psychology and women’s and gender studies professor, said she believes broad racial stereotypes in American culture play a role in psychological notions for young black males, which can begin early in childhood development.

“Part of the negative racial stereotype of African-Americans in the U.S. has to do with being not innocent, lying, cheating [and] aggressive,” Bigler said. “I think what [the study] is arguing [is] that these things get applied even to children when, normally, there would also be a stereotype about children and a bias to see them as innocent.”