Fatal Mistakes: The Adultification of Children of Color

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Neva Newcombe

I'm a girl that likes thinking and people who are secretly soft and squishy inside. There are a lot of things I want to change.

I make mistakes. Most of them are inconsequential, like the time I left a tupperware lid in the oven, and then remembered I had left a tupperware lid in the oven, and then found it had been replaced by lots and lots of smoke. That’s the kind of mistake that most teenagers make on a daily basis because we’re still learning about the ins and outs of normal life, like checking the oven before you preheat it, for a random example.

Sometimes the stakes are higher than tupperware replacement. Several months ago, I was in the car with some friends, driving back from a school event. We were stopped by a cop; it was night, the driver had forgotten to turn the headlights on. It was a legitimate danger to other drivers, considering we were about to leave an urban area. The officer pointed it out, gave us a warning, and then left. We drove away and laughed if off.

Everyone in that car was white, including the driver.

Last summer, I remember reading this headline from the Kansas City Star:

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Accompanied, of course, by said selfie, which was whimsically decorated with cop car emojis. The suspect was a teenager. A white one.

Speaking of white teenage criminals, the internet only recently cooled down about the now hate-famous Stanford Rapist, Brock Turner. His story, or rather the story of his victim, is not uncommon. College kid rapes somebody, rape culture slips in and does its dirty work. This particular case became notorious for a number of complicated reasons, but the collective outrage was sparked over his sentencing on June 2, which, at six months, many considered to be overly lenient. Every word in the previous sentence is an understatement. For two weeks, the public sphere was Brock Turner’s own personal hell. He was hexed by witches. He really was.

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People, and witches, were justifiably angry about the sentence. Turner was essentially let off the hook after doing something massively harmful because the court viewed it as more of a mistake than a crime. This is not uncommon with college rapists. What pushed this case even further into archetype territory was the fact that the media, whether they thought the adjective was appropriate or misplaced, kept using the term “good kid”. There is no doubt in my mind that it was not just rape culture but Brock Turner’s race that led to the lenience of his sentence.

Then, there are mass shooters, the vast majority of whom are young white men. They wreak havoc on civilians with military grade weapons (because when it comes to gun control, Congress likes to take its cues from the Joker) and then when the cops show up, they detain the perpetrators and take them to… Burger King.

”No. Please. Don’t punish me like this.”

If this situation were 100 times less violent , and if Dylann Roof were swapped out for a black or brown teenager, like in the case of Tamir Rice… or Cameron Tillman or Roshad McIntosh or Laquan McDonald or Michael Brown or many many others, things play out differently. In these cases, the police responses fall short of detainment, bullet proof vests, and Burger King, despite none of these teenagers even coming close to the threat posed by Dylann Roof.

Obviously, there is a problem with both kinds of treatment. The fact that police brought the Charleston shooter to Burger King is absurd and insulting. Someone who committed such a heinous crime should not be treated in this manner, which borders on reward. On the other hand, police should not be killing black children. Police should not be killing black children.

These scenarios make something very clear: the definition of a mistake is drastically different for white teenagers and black teenagers, the definition of a dire mistake even more so. When I think back to the time my friends and I were pulled over by a police officer and then drove away without anything more than a conversational anecdote, I imagine the alternatives. I know that would have gone differently if we were black teenagers instead of white ones. The mistake could have been dire.

Systematic racism is the main cause of this disparity, but when I compare the inhumane treatment of black and brown teenagers to the treatment I receive as a white teenager, a sub-phenomenon becomes apparent. Simply, the way that my white peers and I are treated and viewed is more appropriate for children. All the while, black and brown children are viewed as less innocent, and their mistakes as less forgivable. They are adultified, habitually and with consequences.

The adultification of black and brown children is a concept that’s been acknowledged in the past, and it doesn’t just apply to law enforcement. In the book Bad Boys, Ann Ferguson describes how white boys are seen as naturally and innocently naughty, while black boys are seen as intentionally bad. This could be because teachers attribute adult motivations to black, but not white, children. In school, children of color are suspended at far higher rates than white children, and it isn’t because they’re acting out more than white students. If you’re a black student, you’re far more likely to be punished than offered behavioral treatment when you misbehave. These elevated rates remain consistent all the way from preschool to senior year. Ferguson uses the word “adultification” to describe this pattern.

The issue is a also a gendered one. Although both boys and girls are more likely to be the target of exceptionally harsh discipline, most victims of police brutality are boys. Black and brown girls are often adultified by being the targets of sexualization, another finding mentioned in Ferguson’s book. However, you don’t have to do a sociological study to recognize that. The media is awash with overly sexulaized images of and language referring to young black girls. Sexualization gets in the way of viewing someone as a person, let alone as a child.

And being viewed as a child comes with certain privileges, privileges I’m familiar with. Children are viewed as inherently innocent and in need of protection. Most critically, children are allowed to make mistakes, which is good, because as I pointed out earlier, we make mistakes constantly. Of all the privileges of childhood that black children are deprived of, this is perhaps the most essential. I mentioned some names above, victims of police killings. All of them were unarmed and made mistakes that would not have even been considered mistakes if they’d been white — carrying a toy gun, hesitating, opening a door. But even Roshad McIntosh, who allegedly pointed a gun at officers, who made a universally acknowledged mistake, should have been allowed to mess up and live, like all of the white people who have done similar, or worse things.

That is the process of being a person: you mess up and move forward. You buy a new lid, and check the oven next time. You do not die.

Rest in peace to the five children named above, all of whom were wrongfully slain by police officers.