How Black Boys Are Psychologically Impacted When Law Enforcement Fails To See Them As Children

June 11, 2019  |  

Teen ballet student practicing in dance studio

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When my cousin was 14, he was lied on by a police officer. It was a crisp, cold day in February. He intended to go to a party in the neighborhood that evening. I remember him being really excited about it. I thought it was funny that he laid out his clothes the night before. He was at that stage when teen boys first begin to take interest in their appearance. Unfortunately, he never made it to the party. At some point that day, a relative got into an altercation with some men in the neighborhood, which led police officers right up to their doorstep. My cousin had nothing to do with the incident, but when officers arrived at the family home looking for our relative, they took my cousin into custody as well. The claim was that they didn’t know who was who so they took everyone — even though my relative immediately identified himself. When all was said and done, the arresting officer had fabricated claims that my cousin not only resisted arrest but assaulted him. Neither of those claims were true, but my cousin was charged accordingly.

We were never raised to fear law enforcement. Respect them, yes, but never to fear them. Naturally, something in my cousin changed that day. He was afraid. In many ways, I was afraid too.

According to school psychologist Jalisa Barnes, one of the ways that children respond to a betrayal of trust of this magnitude is internalization, which makes them more susceptible to further mistreatment.

“The child believes that the fault lies within themselves and continue to expect and accept mistreatment and abuses,” Barnes shared. “Betrayal by authority figures tend to skew a child’s sense of justice, fairness, and right and wrong.”

Furthermore, these incidents can also lead to a general mistrust of adults and rebellion, she explained. As I watched Ava DuVernay’s riveting series, “When They See Us,” I couldn’t help but think about my cousin and what he lost that day. What Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise lost that day. What little Black boys and girls lose every day because people in authority are incapable of seeing them as children. Even if such a traumatic encounter does not land them in prison for a decade, they’re scarred forever. The damage is irreversible.

After some time, the officers who arrested my cousin said they didn’t realize he was a minor until they took him to the station and attempted to charge him. They claimed that he appeared much older and was larger than boys his age. However, that wasn’t completely true either. He wasn’t particularly large nor was he tall. He looked every bit of 14. Maybe 15 on a good day. Had they taken the time to truly see him instead of automatically viewing him as a threat, they may have recognized the childlike innocence in his face — the same innocence worn by their sons, nephews, younger brothers, cousins, neighbors. Unfortunately, many Black boys and girls are not afforded the privilege of presumed innocence.

According to 2014 study, The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, published by the American Psychological Association, Black boys as young as 10 are not viewed in the same innocent, childlike light as their white peers by law enforcement. Instead, they are “more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime,” said the study’s author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. This mindset results in the dehumanization of Black children. (A separate study, Experiencing Dehumanization: Cognitive and Emotional Effects of Everyday Dehumanization, showed that for the dehumanized, dehumanization resulted in altered self-perception. “For other cognitive and emotional states: being dehumanized
leads to cognitive deconstructive states (i.e., states of mental apathy) and aversive self-awareness.”)

“We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.

The study also found that the average overestimation of the age of Black boys is 4.5 years. That means your 6-year-old is mistaken for a 10-year-old. Your 10 year old for a 14-year-old. Your 14-year-old for an 18-year-old.

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, Black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

My heart still breaks when I reminisce on hearing my cousin whispering to his mother that night beneath the covers after she brought him home from the precinct. I was in the next room, struggling to fall asleep when I heard him slip into her room and crawl into bed with her.

“Mom, I didn’t do it,” he told her.

“I know, baby. I know,” she whispered back.

Today, my cousin suffers from a debilitating paranoia-related mental illness. We’ll never know for sure, but I often wonder if the injustice he faced that day was the catalyst for his psychiatric spiral. Trauma is known to trigger psychiatric breaks and I can only think of a few things more traumatic than minding your business one minute and being dragged out of your home in handcuffs the next.

“Trauma has been well documented as a trigger or catalyst for the manifestation of mental health issues. For one, high stress levels have been found to trigger symptoms related to bipolar disorder in adolescents and young adults,” Barnes shared.

I lacked the maturity to ask him how he felt about everything back then. Today, his disassociation from reality would make that conversation virtually impossible. I still cry for my cousin sometimes. I grieve his traumatizing past. I mourn his embezzled potential. I worry for his future as a mentally ill Black man in America.

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