Ralph Yarl's case spotlights racial 'adultification' of Black children

ByKiara Alfonseca ABCNews logo
Thursday, April 20, 2023

Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old teen who was shot by a homeowner after he accidentally arrived at the wrong address to pick up his siblings - may be a victim of "adultification," according to researchers.

Adultification refers to the racial bias in which people perceive Black children as older and less innocent than white children.

Research has shown that people often perceive young Black males as bigger and more physically threatening than young white males of the same size.

Studies also found that Black children are more likely to be seen as adult-like, less in need of protection, and perceived as angry when they're not.

This can have devastating consequences, leading to discrimination and even violence against Black children, according to researchers. Several researchers referred to the bias as "dehumanizing" for Black people.

"This country, unfortunately, has a history of dehumanizing the Black body, the Black family and taking away those freedoms that should be enjoyed by everybody," said Alison Cooke, a statistician at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, in an interview with ABC News.

Ralph Yarl and Trayvon Martin

Some researchers are speculating how much of a role adultification plays in the perception of Black youth in the aftermath of Yarl's shooting. They say Black children are not afforded the ability to be a child, make mistakes or be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Yarl was picking up his siblings when he unknowingly arrived at the wrong address, according to officials.

Yarl told police he parked in the driveway, went to the front door, "pressed the doorbell and waited outside the front door," according to the probable cause statement.

The homeowner, Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old white man, told police he had just laid down in bed when he heard the doorbell ring. Armed with a handgun, Lester told police he approached the front door of his home, which has an interior door and exterior glass door - both of which were locked.

Lester told police he opened the interior door, and saw a Black male "approximately 6 feet tall" pulling on the exterior storm door handle. He stated he believed someone was attempting to break into the house, and "shot twice within a few seconds of opening the door," the statement read.

Yarl told police "he did not pull on the door." He told police he was "immediately shot in the head and fell to the ground" and he got up and ran, during which Lester allegedly said "don't come around here."

"When I think about what the shooter has said about Ralph, there's an automatic assumption that he is an intruder," said T. Elon Dancy, Chief Research Scientist of the Center for Urban Education in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, in an interview with ABC News.

Dancy says that adultification paints Black children as "someone who was up to no good and is a potential intruder."

Researchers Cooke and Amy Halberstadt, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University, noted Lester's reference to Yarl's size.

Halberstadt's research found that Black boys are more likely perceived to be larger than white boys, despite no real size differences found between the males in the study.

Lester has been charged with one count of felony assault in the first degree and one felony count of armed criminal action. He is expected to appear in court Wednesday.

The suspect told police "it was the last thing he wanted to do, but he was 'scared to death' due to the male's size," his own age, and his "inability to defend himself."

Researchers say these comments bring to mind the findings from a study about Black males being seen as more threatening than same-sized white males.

Yarl's shooting reminds some of the Trayvon Martin case, which was a catalyst for the early stages of the Black Lives Matter movement

Martin, a 17-year-old Black teen, was fatally shot in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a man who followed Martin during his walk home from the store because, Zimmerman said, he believed Martin was suspicious.

Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges connected to Martin's death in July 2013 after asserting self defense.

Sybrina Fulton, Martin's mother, used her platform to remind people that Martin was a child after his death, said Dancy.

Dancy believes Martin's youth got lost in the trial in which Zimmerman labeled Martin a "punk" and one of "these ---holes" in the 911 call he made while following Martin.

Dancy believes those descriptors "are not the ways that we talked about children who are taking a walk to a neighborhood store to get Skittles and something to drink," which is what Martin was said to have been doing that night.

How adultification impacts Black children

Adultification has a legacy of slavery and represents the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, researchers say.

"We have hundreds and hundreds of years of cultivating racism in our country, and instilling fear among the white population against the Black population," said Halberstadt in an interview with ABC News.

She continued, "When Blacks were enslaved people, white slave owners had to justify why they had slaves and to justify the chains and harsh consequences - so in that goal, they completely dehumanized people. But they also created a world of fear that we still have today."

In a University of California, Los Angeles study, it was found that Black children were considered significantly less innocent than children in every age group starting at age 10.

As a result, Black children are 18 times more likely than white children to be criminally sentenced as adults rather than children, according to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology journal.

Black children are also much more likely to be suspended from school and receive harsher punishments for the same infractions than white children, according to research published by the American Psychological Association under the assumptions backed by adultification.

Black youth are also more likely to face police violence if accused of a crime, the UCLA study found.

"Black youth -- female and male -- are being dehumanized and not afforded the protection that we typically give children in this country," said Carmen M. Culotta, a research associate at the University of Cincinnati Evaluation Services Center. "It could lead to the perpetration of violence against them because you see black male children and adolescents as a threat."

The compounding impacts of adultification can impact the community's education, mental health, safety, overpolicing of Black communities, and more.

Researchers told ABC News that the harmful stereotypes of Black people that perpetuate adultification need to be continuously acknowledged, challenged and dismantled to prevent further instances of Black children being killed for being perceived as a threat.

"In the case of Ralph Yarl, it is proving to us that we still have a long march toward freedom and justice," said Dancy.

"This isn't something that should just be a burden of the Black community. It needs to be acknowledged by the white parents," Cooke said.

She continued, "Everyone who wants to engage in this society should be acknowledging: Where did these biases come from and how can we, in our everyday lives, not act on the bias? How do you take that extra step?"

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