Why We All Pay When Black Girls are Punished

Why We All Pay When Black Girls are Punished

Sally NuamahNorthwestern University’s Sally Nuamah received the 2021 American Political Science Association's Best Paper on Intersectionality Award for her work looking at how race and gender stereotypes affect public support for punishing Black girls.

The working paper, Public Perceptions of Black Women and Girls and Their Punitive Consequences, suggests that the American public views Black girls as older, more dangerous, and more knowledgeable about sex, thus influencing the perception that they deserve harsher punishments than their peers.

The findings raise serious questions about the consequences of Black girls' punishment for democracy at large because Black women have high rates of political engagement, according to Nuamah, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

“Ultimately, given their superlative participation, one would expect the punitive experiences of Black girls to have lasting impacts on the future strength of American democracy – as they become voting-age adults,” Nuamah said.

Across the United States, Black girls are suspended, arrested, and detained at disproportionate rates, wrote Nuamah, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. Yet little research exists on these troubling patterns in public opinion research

Using an experiment within a survey to collect data, Nuamah provided an empirical link between the adultification of Black girls–or seeing them as older or more mature than they are–and public support for their punishment. She argues that schools are both racialized and gendered institutions that young Black women students must navigate very carefully or be severely punished.

Her research stood out because of the intersectional lenses she used to examine the political experiences of Black girls and women and to analyze criminal justice and political science literatures, said committee chair Louise K. Davidson-Schmich, professor of political science at the University of Miami and a member of the award committee.

“Her findings allow us to move from just having descriptive data from school districts to empirical results that sadly show that Black girls are in fact perceived as more threatening because they are seen as being older and therefore more able to be a negative influence,” Davidson-Schmich said.

Though research is limited, Nuamah suspects high incarceration rates and detention may impact whether Black women become voting adults or candidates. “Black girls are disproportionately punished with the majority-white American public's robust support,” she wrote.  “The perceptions shaping these policies, must not only be understood but also dismantled. In short: public support for the punishment of Black girls can no longer be ignored.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 9/30/22