Ralph Yarl shooting shows dangerous perception of Black children, experts say

Andrew Lester told police he was “scared to death” when he saw a Black teenager at his front door. That fear drove the 84-year-old to shoot the teenager, Ralph Yarl, who had rang Lester’s doorbell by mistake. Lester’s fear represents a deep-seated negative perception of Black children, experts told NBC News, which has endured for centuries and leads to harsher treatment and punishment of those children.

“We have a history of looking at Black children as something other than valuable,” said NYU School of Law professor emerita Kim Taylor-Thompson. “We view them as more predatory.”

These negative perceptions, she said, are fueled by racial bias. Black children face what Taylor-Thompson calls a “triple threat,” or an exaggerated perception of their size, misperceiving them as older than their actual age and dehumanization.

Lester’s immediate reaction to seeing 16-year-old Yarl at his door reinforces a “racist trope that suggests that Black men are dangerous,” she said. Research shows that Black boys are perceived as larger and more fearsome than white boys of comparable size and stature, she added. In a 2014 report called “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” research confirmed that Black boys are viewed as older and less innocent than their white peers, and that the dehumanization of Black boys contributed to racial disparities in police violence toward Black children.

Jim Crow’s influence on racial stereotyping

The practice of labeling Black children as dangerous heightened in the Jim Crow era, as white mobs lynched and killed children like 14-year-old Emmett Till if they “dared to cross a racial boundary that white society invented and ruthlessly then enforced,” she said. The superpredator myth, a belief created by a criminologist arguing that Black youth contributed to the massive threat of crime and violence, emerged in the 1990s, causing many Black teenagers to receive harsher sentences and adult charges. This idea that Black children are dangerous, Taylor-Thompson said, “is an American phenomenon” with lasting effects.

Media coverage also contributes to the perception that Black children and teens are dangerous, Taylor-Thompson said. To cite just one well-known example, news coverage in 1989 of the Central Park Five case used the terms “wolf-pack” and “wilding” to describe the actions of five Black and Latino teenagers who were falsley accused of raping a white woman. Donald Trump, then a New York real estate developer, took out full-page ads calling for the state to bring back the death penalty and strengthen policing following the attack. The convictions were later overturned after DNA pointed to a serial rapist, and all men were exonerated and released from prison.

Taylor-Thompson said the harm done in stereotyping Black children often remains unacknowledged.

“We’ve never really confronted this racialized story about how we treat Black children — and we treat them as expendable,” Taylor-Thompson said. “We don’t acknowledge it. We don’t do anything to correct it. And so we see it reflected in every part of our society.”

This, she added, is completely different compared to how society views white children.

“We reflexively give white children the benefit of the doubt,” Taylor-Thompson said. “We see a white child and we want to extend the benefits that are associated with childhood. We presume innocence. We want to give them care.”

These perceptions of and attitudes toward white children exist even when white youth engage in questionable behavior. One example she gives is Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who faced homicide charges after fatally shooting two men during a protest over the killing of Jacob Blake in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A year later, a jury cleared Rittenhouse of all charges, including reckless homicide and intentional homicide.

“Of course, if a Black child had been doing the same thing, he wouldn’t have lived to tell the story,” Taylor-Thompson said.

How dangerous perceptions harm Black children

The traumatic experiences resulting from Black children being perceived as threats can cause feelings of grief, anxiety and fears over safety, said Riana Elyse Anderson, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

In an interview with “CBS Mornings,” Yarl’s mother said her son was crying “buckets of tears” while recovering at home. As a student who has “such high hopes and big dreams,” he could be crying for multiple reasons, Anderson said, including grief over his aspirations and the loss of his own innocence. Such an incident can also cause feelings of frustration, potentially prompting Yarl to internalize what happened to him.

“Young people often feel if they had just done something differently that they may have had a different outcome in that situation,” Anderson said.

Black children who witness disturbing incidents like Yarl’s are also susceptible to experiencing trauma as a result.

“One of the things that we know about racial trauma and racial discrimination is that it is really quite unique, relative to other stressors or trauma, because that vicarious experience is so tightly connected,” Anderson said. “And in fact, young Black children experience and report more vicarious trauma than they do even personal trauma.”

Beyond psychological harm, the dangerous portrayal of Black children also results in disproportionate criminalization rates. According to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center that addresses racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Black children are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white children. Taylor-Thompon said that Black children are often denied rehabilitative care and opportunities to divert out of the criminal justice system because they are seen as more threatening.

When the criminal justice system makes decisions regarding Black youth, they are seen as a fully formed adult rather than a child who is still developing, Taylor-Thompson added.

Protecting Black youth

While these experiences can be difficult for families to deal with, Anderson said it also gives them the opportunity to “come together around their child to talk about both the joy and the challenge that culture represents for them,” she said. This includes going to festivals, museums or even wearing certain attire that embraces Black culture. She also suggested that talking openly about race and discrimination can help tamp down a child’s anxiety after experiencing a racist incident.

Ultimately, though, the solution to debunking these negative perceptions involves changing the narrative about Black children, Taylor-Thompson said. One example she gives is Yarl, described as intelligent and kind, who “was doing all the things that we want our kids to be able to do.”

“Those stories don’t get told in our media,” she said. “They don’t get told regularly enough that that can become the image of who our kids are. Instead, it’s an image that our kids are dangerous, and they’re not.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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