By Priscilla Ocen
NNPA Guest Columnist
When asked what her teachers think of her and her peers, one Black girl responded, “They like, can’t be trusted, or they are loud and rowdy, ghetto, and stuff like that. Ignorant.”
Subjective stereotypes such as these often lead teachers and school administrators to over-discipline Black girls. At times these stereotypes push them out of school altogether and onto a path of criminalization and low-income jobs, ultimately creating a lifelong opportunity gap for Black women.
Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, a report released recently by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies takes a step toward shedding light on the crisis facing Black girls.
Although it is now well known that Black men and boys confront racial obstacles throughout American society, there is little awareness of the pressing needs of Black women and girls. Black Girls Matter begins to fill that gap by examining the impact of punitive disciplinary policies on African American girls in New York City and Boston public schools.
Its findings reveal that Black girls and other girls of color experience discriminatory disciplinary policies, and disproportionately high suspension and expulsion rates. Like their male counterparts, Black girls are substantially more likely to be subjected to school discipline than their female peers. In fact, the disparity in disciplinary punishments between Black girls and White girls is greater than the one between Black and White boys in some settings. Across the nation, Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than White girls, whereas Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than White boys.
In New York City during the 2011-2012 school year, 90 percent of the girls expelled were Black, and none were White. In Boston, Black girls were 10 times more likely to be suspended than their White female counterparts, while Black boys were 7.4 times more likely to be suspended than their White peers. So while Black boys face higher rates of suspension and expulsion in terms of absolute numbers, Black girls in some contexts face a greater racialized risk.
Alarming statistics such as these highlight the need for the inclusion of girls of color in the discourse around racial justice. They make it clear that both African American boys and girls confront serious racial barriers, including failing schools, unwarranted forms of criminalization, and impoverished communities. Moreover, compared to all girls, Black girls have the worst rates of suspension, juvenile detention and homicide; and the gender-specific ways in which they experience sexual harassment, pregnancy and other familial burdens are seldom focused upon in the quest for racial justice. Our report, “Black Girls Matter,” reverses this silence by amplifying the voices of girls regarding their experiences in school.
One girl interviewed recalled being expelled from school when she was arrested at 16-years-old. Following the expulsion, she was out of school for two years. Another remembered when a father went to his daughter’s teachers because another student was sexually harassing her. But instead of stepping in to protect the girl, the teachers’ response was, “good, take her out, she attracts too much attention from our boys.”
These girls shared their memories of teachers funneling them into the school-to-prison pipeline, and the tacit acceptance of sexual harassment against Black girls. Narratives like these are critical in creating systemic solutions to the issues Black girls face on a day-to-day basis. These persistent voices call for us to listen to their needs and to create responsive policies.
Despite the evidence, however, the dominant public discourse on racial justice in the United States consistently leaves out women and girls. Black Girls Matterbrings their hardships to the forefront in a work that is grounded in their own words and experiences. These hardships cannot be pushed to the margins anymore. Systemic racism impacts all Black Americans, and going forward the experiences of our sisters need to count for just as much as those of our brothers.
This is precisely why resources such as Black Girls Matter, which is anchored by conversations with Black girls, are so important. Our girls are in crisis too, and targeted action to address realities confronting girls of color in post-apartheid America cannot wait.
Priscilla Ocen is an Associate Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where she teaches courses on criminal law, race, gender and the law and family law. She is also a co-author of the report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” She can be reached on twitter @pannocen.