A police interaction with a young, Black girl had a happy ending

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Last month, the Yale School of Public Health held a ceremony to celebrate Bobbi Wilson, a nine year old Black kid from Caldwell, New Jersey who efforts to eradicate spotted lanternflies was seen as an environmentally progressive gesture.

The ceremony also served as an opportunity to recognize Wilson’s donation of her personal spotted lanternfly collection to Yale’s Peabody museum, where she is now listed as the donor scientist on its official database.

Yale doesn’t normally do anything like this … this is something unique to Bobbi,” said Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara, who organized the event. “We wanted to show her bravery and how inspiring she is, and we just want to make sure she continues to feel honored and loved by the Yale community.”

While such actions were well-founded and well-deserved, what was less welcoming was the incident that led to such an outcome.

On October 22nd, a local neighbor named Gordon Lawshe called 911 to report that a “little Black woman” in a hood was spraying sidewalks and trees near his home. “I don’t know what the hell she’s doing, scares me though,” Lawshe said, according to a recording later released by the Caldwell Police Department.

The police eventually arrived. Realizing they were dealing with an innocent child, they quickly took some questions from her mother and closed out the case. While we can be grateful that the young lady was not a casualty of police violence, the larger issue remains – what made Lawshe assume that a nine-year-old child (a petite one at that) was an adult? Why would a supposedly “little Black woman” cleaning sidewalks and spraying trees“scare” him? His actions were both troubling and disturbing.

The incident focused attention on the “adultification” of young Black children, who many experts say are treated more harshly by police than their white counterparts.

Far too often, the justification for this kind of suspicion of Black children is due to the blatant denigration and degradation of Black youngsters. This dehumanization begins with long ingrained stereotypes of Black students as troublemakers and thugs. As any reasonable person should realize, rebellion from teenagers is common among all races and genders. Nonetheless, Black children, simply by virtue of their skin color, are viewed as more dangerous, unhinged and more prone to violent behavior.

For example, George Zimmerman conceded at his bail hearing more than a decade ago that he misjudged Trayvon Martin’s age when he murdered him. “I thought he was a little bit younger than I am,” he said, meaning mid-20s. But Martin was only 17.

Black girls are subject to similar beliefs, according to a study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. A group of more than 300 adults viewed black girls as more adultlike, needing less support and protection than white girls, and as knowing more about sex and other adult topics.

I remember when I and my siblings were young children, whether it was for babysitting, helping moving equipment or other tasks, how my parents would have to inform the adults in question, (yes, white adults), that we were young children and thus, did not set our own schedules, let alone, dictate the rules of our household. Some of these conversations would end with the grown adult in question apologizing for their actions.

The truth is Black children deserve to be granted the privilege of being children like any other race of children. We can all be thankful that nine year old Bobbi Wilson was not another statistic due to the result of trigger happy policeman or an overzealous, racially profiling neighbor. May her future be one that is bright and productive.

Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.