The guy who killed with an assault-style rifle when threatened with a skate board and a fist “came off like a regular teenager”
Infantilization of white perpetrators is our cultural flip side of adultification of black youth
Dear NPR Morning Edition:
In today’s (11-20-2021) Morning Edition coverage of the Rittenhouse acquittal, your reporter stated that a significant factor in Rittenhouse’s acquittal was his preparation to take the stand and that in doing so, “He came off like a regular teenager.” In other words, he was portrayed and perceived as a scared and angry child, and thus could not be held accountable for killing and injuring humans with his assault-style rifle.
You are a news source that prides itself on objective coverage of issues. Your failure in this important case shows how hard it is to be objective with our overwhelming white cultural bias as a nation.
It would be objective reporting and informative to contextualize this: “He came off like a regular teenager” because of his whiteness. Plentiful research in the last decades shows conclusively that black children and youth are consistently viewed as older than they are, and thus held to a higher standard of responsibility. This phenomenon is called adultification. Cooke and Halberstadt (2021, July) are only among the most recent authors of peer-reviewed scholarship to look at the consequences, in terms of anger bias, when black preschoolers are viewed as older than they really are.
Your own report (2014, March 19) reviewed the research, under the headline, “Consequences When African-American Boys Are Seen As Older.” Specifically, drawing on recent peer-reviewed research, you reported that “it found that African-American boys as young as 10 years old were significantly less likely to be viewed as children than their white peers. The report suggests that this could have serious implications for the way African-American boys are viewed by the criminal justice system and by society as a whole.” Your report accurately characterizes this as “dehumanization.”
We see the flip side of this with Mr. Rittenhouse, who, with his defense team’s expert guidance, was able silently to play the race card of his whiteness to portray his own innocence and victimhood in a court where the judge disallowed the dead humans being called “victims” and threw out the fact that Mr. Rittenhouse was wielding an assault-style rifle. Research would suggest that Rittenhouse’s whiteness contributed to making it thinkable for the overwhelmingly white jury (with only one juror of color) to view one of the real victims, whom he killed, as posing an actual threat when he threatened to hit Mr. Rittenhouse with a skate board. This dehumanized victim, Mr. Anthony Huber, with his skate board, should have been the one viewed as childlike and innocent.
We need to normalize—and research—using the term infantilization when, as in the case of Mr. Rittenhouse, white people are excused of using lethal violence to express their fear or anger. This would be akin to Robin DiAngelo’s identifying white fragility but would shift infantilization away from condescension toward Black people, as John McWhorter suggests DiAngelo unwittingly does and place it where it belongs: infantilization of White people who should be held responsible if they arrange to obtain assault-style weapons and then use them to kill people.
The Rittenhouse case should be reported in the context of the newsworthy, objective American Psychological Society’s (2021, September 1) “by the numbers” report finding that “Non-White youth still face high levels of discrimination: Black youth experience the highest incidence of racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States, followed closely by Native American youth” (Black youth still face https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/09/numbers-discrimination).
We count on NPR to be objective even though being objective requires more contextualization than might normally be perceived as appropriately focused on the facts. Please consider a policy of contextualizing adultification of Black boys and girls, men and women as a necessary part of the reporting when adultification—or infantilization of whites, as in the case of Rittenhouse—is at play.
Lynne Hamer, Ph.D.
Professor, The Judith Herb College of Education
The University of Toledo