Salecia Johnson is shown at her home near Milledgeville. In 2012, police handcuffed the kindergartner after she threw a tantrum. AP PHOTO/WMAZ-13 TV
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Life with Gracie: Are black girls worse than white girls?

I think sometimes about Salecia Johnson, the little girl handcuffed and arrested a few years ago after school officials called police to report she’d assaulted a principal and damaged school property.

She was 6 years old, African-American and as cute as could be.

Milledgeville police said at the time that they were called to Creekside Elementary School because Salecia was allegedly throwing a tantrum and that when they arrived, the kindergartner was on the floor of the principal’s office, screaming and crying.

The officer said he tried numerous times to calm the girl but she pulled away and began fighting with him.

“The child was then placed in handcuffs for her safety and the officer proceeded to bring her down to the police station,” Chief Dray Swicord said.

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If that doesn’t break your heart, you need a new one.

Though the charges against her were eventually dropped, I don’t know what happened to Salecia after that. It was one of those stories we reporters soon forget, but I couldn’t help thinking of her again when a press release detailing a study of black girls ended up in my inbox.

The bottom line?

We adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially those ages 5 to 14.

“Anyone who looks at these results should be shocked,” said Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality and lead author of the study. “I personally was shocked that perceiving black children as adult-like would happen in kindergarten.”

The study, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, is the first of its kind to focus on girls, and builds on previous research on adult perceptions of black boys. That includes a 2014 study led by Phillip Goff that found that, beginning at age 10, black boys are more likely to be viewed as older and guilty of suspected crimes than their white peers.

If you’re African-American, this won’t likely come as a surprise. It wasn’t to me but it’s proof that I haven’t been imagining things. Even before Epstein’s study provided the data to back up my perception, I knew Salecia’s arrest wasn’t an isolated case.

Another African-American girl was handcuffed by police for acting out in her kindergarten class in Florida. And a 9-year-old black girl was handcuffed and hauled off to jail by police in Oregon, fingerprinted and given a mug shot. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of instances that occur every day but don’t make the news.

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While the report does not offer proof of the cause and effect of this kind of “adultification,” Epstein believes adultification explains why “black girls in America are disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls — across our schools and in our juvenile justice system.”

“If you view a black girl essentially as an adult, you’re not going to extend to her the same leniency that you extend to white children,” Epstein said. “Our whole juvenile justice system has been built on the notion of child development, that children can change and learn from their mistakes. However, we have to recognize that person as a child in order to give them that leniency.”

That’s less likely to happen if the child is African-American because educators, school-based police officers and other officials often have significant discretion in their decision making, including for minor, subjective infractions such as dress code violations, disobedience and disruptive behavior.

“We also know that teachers are more likely to call the police on black girls, and when they arrive, officers are more likely to arrest them,” Epstein said. “When they enter the system, prosecutors are less likely to drop the cases.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Statistics, of course, bear this out.

For instance, she said, 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 percent of the female school population, but account for 28 percent of referrals to law enforcement, and 37 percent of arrests. White girls account for 50 percent of the female school population, but only 34 percent of referrals and 30 percent of arrests; and black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system as white girls, 20 percent more likely to be charged with a crime or to be detained than white girls, and less likely to benefit from prosecutorial discretion.

One study, according to Epstein, found that prosecutors dismissed only 30 percent of cases against black girls, while dismissing 70 percent of cases against white girls.

If you think this is because black girls are naturally more likely to commit such trespasses, hold on.

Epstein said that when it comes to objective offenses like carrying a firearm, the disciplinary rates are pretty even. But when it comes to subjective violations such as dress code violations or other offenses in which bias can shape one’s view of whether a violation has actually been committed, black girls are consistently suspended at greater rates.

“It really depends on the filters on the lens of people who have authority over these girls,” Epstein said. “We give children second chances. Black girls deserve those same second chances, but I think the stats are clear that something else is going on. And that’s fundamentally unfair.”

Marlyn Tillman, the mother of two sons educated in the Gwinnett County schools and co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, isn’t impressed by the findings, but not for the reason you may think.

“I’m kinda over it,” she said. “This is what happens to our kids. This has been black people’s existence for all of my life. How many more studies do we need? The Georgia Legislature did a study back in the early ’90s around the difference in discipline and race. They came up with the same conclusion. Tell me what has changed.”

There is one thing Epstein and her team do that others didn’t. They’re calling for further study and recommending providing teachers and law enforcement officials with training to help counteract the negative consequences of this bias against black girls.

I don’t know how we change people’s hearts, but I do know that there will be a reaping season for the bad we sow into these children’s lives. Either way, it’s time to make a change.

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