Innocence Erased: How Society Keeps Black Boys from Being Boys
Black children are 18 times more likely to be charged as adults than are white children.
It is a statistic that Phillip Atiba Goff, a social psychologist who studies racial disparities in the criminal justice system, would like to be included in the debate surrounding the allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a girl when he was a teenager.
Some, including people who say they opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination on ideological grounds, have asked if it’s fair to judge him as an adult for something that he is accused of having done when he would have been 17 years old.
This kind of consideration is rarely extended to black boys, said Goff. He authored a 2014 study that found that black boys “are seen as more culpable for their actions (i.e. less innocent) within a criminal justice context” than white boys, and “are actually misperceived as older relative to peers of other races.”
“The police officers in Cleveland who shot Tamir Rice said he was a black male who looked to be around 20 years old. He was 12,” Goff said in an interview this week, referring to the 2014 incident. Rice was playing with a toy gun in a neighborhood park when an officer opened fire within two seconds after getting out of his patrol car.
“It’s almost like childhood was invented to protect white boys only,” Goff said, noting that the 2014 study was “the third paper of its kind showing black boys are treated as older than they actually are.”
Those assumptions about black boys have their basis in the racist history of dehumanization of African Americans and other people of color, which Goff’s research also explores. In the study, mostly white male police officers and mostly white female undergraduate students were shown photos of apes or large cats. Police officers who associated African Americans with apes were more likely to use force against black children. The female students who associated black people with apes judged black children over the age of 10 as less innocent and in need of protection.
The dehumanization of blackness leaves teenagers especially vulnerable, Goff argues. He likens it to how people perceive animals at the zoo. “Everyone loves the baby animals . . . think they are adorable,” he said. “But have you ever seen an adolescent wolf or tiger or lion?”
“Adolescence is a uniquely human category. If your group is treated as less than human, then your group doesn’t get to go through adolescence, and that’s how black boys are treated,” Goff said. “It’s that awkward space between childhood and becoming an adult that’s given extra care for white children, but is erased for black boys.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been tripped up by an accusation by Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, that he sexually assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s. During a house party in Montgomery County, Maryland, Ford said that a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, groped her and tried to take her clothes off. When she tried to scream, she said, Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth. Ford was able to get away from Kavanaugh after a friend of his jumped on the bed, she said, and she fled, locking herself in the bathroom.
Kavanaugh had denied the allegations and said he is looking forward to addressing them at a hearing the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled for Monday.
Ford has not yet agreed to the Monday hearing, although her lawyer said Thursday that she might testify later in the week. Ford has asked for an FBI probe of her allegation before going before the committee.
Some of Kavanaugh’s defenders have said that Ford’s allegation, if true, amounted to little more than a youthful indiscretion. One female Kavanaugh supporter said what Ford described could be viewed as rough horseplay.
Even some who say they oppose his nomination, like Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks, have expressed uneasiness questioning his character as a grown man based on “his behavior as a teen.” Brooks argued in a lengthy Twitter thread that the “bad behavior of minors should be treated differently than the behavior of adults, and that adults should not be shadowed by misdeeds as children.” And she anticipated pushback from people who point to racial disparities in the criminal justice system: “[T]o those who say, ‘But the GOP would not treat allegations of sex assault by a black teen as forgivingly,’ I agree as well. But . . . we shouldn’t conform to the bad behaviors of others.”
But that is little help for the black boys who the criminal justice system treats as adults, with consequences that not only affect the rest of their lives, but sometimes cuts their lives short.
Khalil Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said concern by some for Kavanaugh’s age at the time of the alleged assault is evidence of a double standard because they are most likely to support drastic policing tactics, such as stop and frisk, aimed at black youth.
He cited the case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old teenager from the Bronx who was walking home from a party when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent three years awaiting trial in Riker’s Island, where he was beaten by guards, other inmates and frequently locked in solitary confinement. The charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Browder killed himself a few years later.
“I think the systemic criminalization of black youth is perhaps the clearest indicator that age and innocence is no protection for youth of color in this country,” Muhammad said.
The five African American and Latino boys accused of raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989 were between 14 and 16 years old when they were arrested. Donald Trump took out a full page ad in the city’s newspapers calling for the death penalty for the accused. When the young men were exonerated and released from prison several years later, Trump refused to apologize and criticized the city for paying them restitution for their wrongful conviction and incarceration.
Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were both 17 — and unarmed — when they were shot to death in separate incidents in Florida in 2012. In both cases, adult men instigated confrontations with the teenagers then said they shot them because they feared for their lives.
Goff again cites the statistics: “Black children are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested, 5 times more likely to catch a sentence, and the sentences are significantly longer because they are 18 times more likely to be tried as adults.”
He adds: “I don’t think anybody should be held accountable for the rest of their lives for the worst thing they ever did. But we’re very comfortable with society doing that with children who get arrested who are black — and I need that inconsistence to be part of the conversation.”