After an officer killed a 16-year-old in Ohio, what does it mean to be a Black girl in America?

AKRON, OHIO – Why did the officer decide to shoot first?

“Why didn’t you just try to calm her down or do anything? Why didn’t you try to speak with her and make sure everything was OK before you even went to pull out your gun?” Adrianna, 12, asked. “You could have tackled her, you could have tased her, maced her. Why did you choose the route you chose?”

And, why did he shoot four times, asked 15-year-old Ja’Niyah.

The girls were reflecting on the fall-out from a Columbus police officer shooting Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, two days earlier while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Body-cam footage showed Ma’Khia lunging toward another person while holding a knife as officer Nicholas Reardon fired four shots within seconds of arriving on the scene. As the nation processed the killing of another Black person by an officer, these Akron teenagers faced an unavoidable question: What does it mean to be a Black girl in America?

The group of girls, aged 10 to 15, sat in a circle in a brightly painted, second-floor dance studio in downtown Akron. It was the weekly meeting of Little Miss and Big Sis, an empowerment group that aims to support Black girls in their personal and professional goals and their journeys toward womanhood. Sitting with them was their 23-year-old mentor Alexis Payne, who co-founded the group last December. After losing her 8-year-old cousin MiKayla “KayKay” Pickett to gun violence last summer, Payne became determined to create a safe space for Black girls in Akron, a place where they could share their dreams and struggles without judgment, and feel loved and heard.

“Do you wish you could rewind it?” Payne asked aloud about the officer.

One by one, the girls shared what they would say to the officer who shot Ma’Khia if they had the chance. The girls are identified only by their first names because of the sensitive topics discussed.

“If that was your daughter and it was another police officer that was in your spot that did the same thing … how would you [feel]?” Adrianna interjected.

“What would you do if there was another person or race in that situation, the same situation the girl was in. Would you still [act] that same way if she was a different color?” wondered Ra’Niya, 12.

“How do they live with themselves knowing that they just took somebody’s life, a kid’s life?” 13-year-old Aiyana asked.

In the aftermath of the death, media coverage swiftly focused on whether the officer was justified in shooting Ma’Khia. Some experts argued that Reardon followed protocol and was operating within the bounds of his professional duty. But the shooting, which coincided with the announcement of the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, also drew condemnation from critics who, like the girls in Akron, questioned why Reardon did not do more to de-escalate the situation or otherwise employ a nonlethal course of action.

And despite Ma’Khia’s young age, journalists and politicians alike — including the mayor of Columbus — consistently referred to her as a “woman,” underscoring the ways in which society does not view Black kids, and Black girls in particular, as children in need of support and protection.

“They’re not being seen as girls. They’re being seen as threats,” said Tanisha “Wakumi” Douglas, executive director of S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective, a nonprofit that supports Black girls and LGBTQ+ youth involved in the criminal justice and foster care systems in Florida and New York.

“That’s how they are being perceived by the adults who are meant to protect them and care for them. And so the way that the police officers are trained to deal with threats is exactly what we’re witnessing with these gross uses of force which need to be questioned,” Douglas said.

Victims of ‘adultification bias’

In 2017, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality published a landmark study on adults’ perceptions of Black girls as being less innocent and in need of less nurturing than their white peers, beginning as early as age 5.

After surveying 325 respondents across multiple backgrounds — the majority white — the center found that adults viewed Black girls as needing less protection and support, being more independent and knowing more about adult topics, including sex. This phenomenon, which the researchers refer to as “adultification bias,” takes root when Black girls are between the ages of 5 and 14, and follows them for the rest of their youth.

Such stereotypes, which are rooted in racism and the legacies of slavery, have far-reaching consequences. In the classroom, they may account for harsher punishment for Black girls, who experience higher suspension rates than white girls, the researchers note.

In the juvenile justice system, adultification bias can translate into more severe penalties and greater use of force against Black girls. Studies show that prosecutors dismiss, on average, 7 out of 10 cases involving white girls, but only 3 out of 10 cases involving Black girls, who also are not afforded as many diversion opportunities to avoid formal initiation into the criminal justice system.

“Adultification contributes to a false narrative that Black youths’ transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision-making — a key characteristic of childhood,” the report states. “In essence, ‘the adultification stereotype results in some [Black] children not being afforded the opportunity’ to make mistakes and to learn, grow, and benefit from correction for youthful missteps to the same degree as white children.”

Jamilia Blake, a lead author of the report and professor at Texas A&M University, described adultification bias as “a form of dehumanization” that prevents society from viewing Black girls as human beings in need of nurture and capable of being calmed down.

“It’s just immediately a movement to control, surveil and penalize, and in this case, unfortunately, take a life,” she said, describing how adultification bias may have played a role in Ma’Khia’s shooting death.

For Blake, the media focus on whether Reardon was operating within protocol distracts from the more urgent question of why lethal force was used.

“I think the obvious thing is to say is, ‘Well, there was a weapon there and that was the threat,’ but I think we see throughout all of these incidents that law enforcement have been able to use de-escalation techniques with people with much more threatening and powerful weapons and they’ve been able to de-escalate and take people down without a loss of life,” Blake said.

Kathi Elliott is CEO of Gwen’s Girls, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that empowers and supports girls to overcome the barriers of race, gender and class in pursuit of their dreams and improved quality of life.

Elliott shared her own pain, sadness and anger upon learning what happened in Columbus. She said her organization has been focused on supporting its girls, particularly those who are in foster care, as they process the tragedy.

“They’re having the same reaction that we are, but one of the main things is the realization that it could have been them,” Elliott said.

“Sometimes your emotions and your anger, as a young person, could maybe kind of take over, and that is normal adolescence. And so in some instances our young people are not afforded the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s just like, nowadays they come with deadly consequences,” she said.

“It’s a realization that, again, they really identified not only with Ma’Khia but several of the other incidents that have occurred, and just processing what that means for them as a Black person or Black youth in America,” Elliot added.

The members of Little Miss and Big Sis shared their own experiences with adultification bias and racial profiling. Many talked about having been followed while shopping or browsing in stores. Some complained about the uneven standards for clothing and school uniforms for Black girls versus white girls, with Black girls being chastised for wearing clothes that their white peers don’t get in trouble for wearing. Several spoke of the indignities of their bodies being sexualized by adults at a young age, particularly if their bodies developed earlier. Some girls described what they saw as adults doling out harsher punishments to Black kids in school.

“I think young Black women or Black girls go through a lot,” Janice said.

Traumatic childhood

At the time of her death, Ma’Khia had been in foster care for three years and one month. Before moving into the home on Legion Lane in Columbus, Ma’Khia and her siblings had been under the care of their grandmother for 16 months.

Records filed by Children Services state that the grandmother had lost her housing and dropped the children off at Franklin County Children Services in the summer of 2019. When she tried to take back her grandchildren in December 2019, citing their success under her care and the emotional and mental hardships the children endured as a result of being separated from their siblings in foster care, Children Services refused her request.

In the weeks leading up to Ma’Khia’s death, records show that her 15-year-old sister had called 911 stating she did not want to stay in the foster home on Legion Lane.

At least a dozen other 911 calls came from the foster home, according to records obtained by the Associated Press. Many of the calls came from Ma’Khia’s foster mother, who asked for help when her foster children did not return home or had left the home without her permission.

Douglas said it was imperative to ask what happened to Ma’Khia. What traumas or pain was she experiencing that would result in her wielding a knife?

“What are the traumas that this young person experienced in the course of her life, what are the harms that have occurred over the course of her life that may have led her to this moment or that often lead young people to a moment like this?” Douglas asked.

Black girls are three times more likely to land in state custody, according to Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality report, and Black children remain overrepresented in the foster care system.

Payne, who herself was taken away from her mother at a young age, said that the experience was emotionally wrenching.

“When you go to a foster home, you don’t know them people. You’re scared. You don’t know what to expect, or you don’t even know how these people are going to treat you. Just because people be foster parents don’t mean they really want the kids,” Payne said.

Help for families in crisis

Organizations like Gwen’s Girls are advocating for initiatives and policies to support foster youth and their families during moments of crisis. Gwen’s Girls is in talks with Pittsburgh police, juvenile courts, the school district, the mayor’s office and other stakeholders to create a policy that would give foster and biological families the option of calling trained social workers rather than police to de-escalate conflicts. In addition to preventing formal processing into the criminal justice system and avoiding potentially deadly encounters with law enforcement, this initiative also aims to also equip families with other resources and support to strengthen familial bonds.

“Whether a child is in foster care or we see it often in a teenage adolescent stage, oftentimes there is some parent-child conflict, and what we want to do is kind of equip adults and parents and families on how to address those situations because most of the time, police are called,” Elliott of Gwen’s Girls said.

The goal is to keep families together, Elliott said, and give them tools so that situations don’t escalate as we saw in the case of Ma’Khia. Elliott said that young people make decisions, good or bad, and that it is adults’ responsibilities to guide them.

“Do we help them to make some positive decisions, but also as adults navigate a situation where it doesn’t escalate to having to call the police or put anybody out or, like in this situation, [Ma’Khia] feeling that she had to defend herself and grabbing a knife?” asked Elliott.

“It’s the perspective of, again, not always addressing or approaching a situation from a punitive standpoint but how can we empathize and have a better understanding of where that child is coming from,” she said. “Oftentimes in these situations, it’s not until after the fact that people want to think about what could have been done differently. But how can we do that in preventing things like this from happening?”

S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective also has a variety of similar initiatives, including pre-charge diversion and restorative justice programs, aimed at protecting and empowering Black youth.

“Stuff that is very normal teenage stuff that escalates to violence probably because one, a previous trauma history and two, because there are not adults who are able to intervene and teach the young people how to redirect that conflict in a better direction,” Douglas said.

S.O.U.L. Sisters’ Circles Not Cells program works with New York City agencies and nonprofits serving girls and youth involved in the juvenile justice system to teach them conflict resolution skills, curb recidivism and more. Douglas stressed the importance of supporting girls who are returning home after being in juvenile detention or in foster care, as sometimes their families may call the police on them.

‘I just want to know the whole story‘

While processing the shooting of Ma’Khia, the members of Little Miss and Big Sis had more questions than answers. They wondered who Ma’Khia was and what her dreams were. Her obituary states that she was an honor roll student in the 11th grade. She had a keen sense of humor, enjoyed cooking and loved making TikTok videos of herself doing her hair.

The girls wondered what Ma’Khia was going through. Was she being bullied? What pain was she carrying that caused her outburst, and had any adults listened to her? Was her reaction a “cry out for help,” as Payne speculated?

“I just want to know the whole story. … We’re just getting bits and pieces of it ourselves. But I just really, like we said, think there could have been another result,” Payne said.

As their meeting drew to a close, the girls shared what they wished law enforcement knew about them and their communities.

“If I’m in that situation, I want them to know my age also and I want them to know what I went through, and where I grew up. I want them to know why I’m scared of the police, why I don’t talk as much as I used to and everything that I went through. And I want them to basically get to know me before they pull out a gun,” Adrianna said.

Janice wanted to dispel harmful stereotypes about Black people.

“They’re not all robbers and killers and stuff like that. Some actually live in nice homes, do the right thing. They’re not all bad people. I just want them to know that,” she said.

“What I want them to know about me is that, first, I will tell them my age, and that I am a young Black girl growing up and want to see my future,” Ja’Niyah said.

“And I don’t want to die.”

The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report, which was first published by Akron Beacon Journal. Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Follow her on Twitter: @SeymaBayram0