MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For more on this complex issue, we called Phillip Atiba Goff. He is president of the Center for Policing Equity, and he teaches that subject at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He is a social psychologist whose work focuses on racial bias, and he's gotten a lot of attention for his 2014 study that found that black boys are often perceived as older than they actually are and less innocent than their white counterparts, which leads to a greater assumption of guilt and greater instances of police violence against them. He's with us now via Skype. Professor, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Would you talk a bit more about your research study from 2014? How did you go about studying this question?
GOFF: Yeah. So we were actually building on the research of Sandra Graham and others who had found similar sets of things when they had described the behavior of black as opposed to white adolescence. And it turns out that when you describe behavior that's age-appropriate but it's bad behavior, you start adding years to your estimation of how old the black actor was.
All we did was we added pictures. So they - now we're looking at the faces of actual 10, 11, 12, 13, 14-year-olds, and we saw that they added a number of years to them. We were actually really surprised at first because the number was way more than we would have expected. It was four and five years to the face of a 13 or 14 year old child. That takes someone who's early in adolescence and makes them a legal adult.
MARTIN: And you found that this is particularly pronounced with black kids. I mean, like what about Latino kids?
GOFF: Yeah, it was particularly pronounced among black boys. We actually only looked at boys because you start adding gender and it becomes complicated. But there are some researchers at Georgetown who have just essentially replicated this doing the same thing with black girls around the same age. Not the same case for Latinos or Latinas. Not the same case for Asian-American folks. And there's not a cultural representation that allows us to look at that for native folks. It does seem to be particular to black folks.
MARTIN: So your study focused on police interactions with black boys. Is there a broader applicability? Because in this case, we're talking about school staff. Now let's just assume that school personnel have more day-to-day interactions with young children, you know, more personal relationships with them, maybe even some training in child development. So do you think that the conclusions you reached in your study apply to this particular subject? I mean, the subject at hand here is arming school personnel. Do you think this this phenomenon that you describe still applies?
GOFF: Yeah. So it's a great question, and I wish we had answers. We're in the process of doing that research right now. But I'm not sure. I do know that it's not just patrol officers. Sandra Graham and Brian Lowery found it with probation officers. We know it happens for college undergraduates including undergraduates that work closely in after school programs. So there's reason to suspect it might generalize, but we don't know whether or not a career in education might inoculate one to that kind of element.
We also don't know - it's important to get - in Broward County for a long time, they had one of the highest racial disparities in school discipline. So whatever else might be going on there, the educators are not inured against engaging in disparate behavior. We're talking about disparate referrals, disparate out-of-school and in-school suspensions. And that's the kind of thing that, regardless of whether or not you've got a gun in your hand, we know it can be terrible for the life trajectory of children.
MARTIN: Before we let you go on this question of the disparities, particularly the particular subject that you studied in 2014, you know, boys - black boys in particular being perceived as older and less innocent than they actually are just based on their race. Is there any way out of these habits of mind? I mean, let's just assume that most people don't get up in the morning intending to treat black kids poorly. I mean, does your research indicate any way out of that habit of mind, any way that people can correct their thinking?
GOFF: Absolutely it does. And one of the ways is to push back on that question. These aren't habits of minds. These are reflections in the mind of the culture, right? So this is not a problem with individual police officers. It's not a problem with individual college students in any of our samples. This is the way the world is being reflected on the canvas of everyone's mind.
So one of the key ways that you can reduce the automatic association between black and criminal, between black childhood and being older than they are, is change the material realities. Change the chronic situations in which we encounter them. If we stop requiring that black boys have to behave like men at home and boys at school, we'll stop seeing them as older than they are. When we stop representing them as criminals on television, then we'll stop seeing them as more dangerous than they are. And that will allow black children to have that fundamentally uniquely human experience of being children.
MARTIN: That's Phillip Atiba Goff. He's the president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. We reached him via Skype. Professor Goff, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GOFF: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.