Race & Gender: The Criminalization of Black Girls

In 2015, educator and researcher, Dr. Monique Morris published, The Pushout, a powerful piece of research literature that examines the intersection between race, gender, and the criminalization of Black girls in public education. The Pushout occurs, in this case, when a Black girl becomes disengaged from her own educational attainment, leaves school, and finds herself in juvenile confinement.

There are a number of external factors that may promote the Pushout such as an unsupportive household environment, abuse, trauma, or an undiagnosed learning disorder. However, for the purpose of this piece, I will focus on the internal environments of public schools; specifically how disparities in disciplinary practices as well as biases support the creation of conditions that result in the Pushout.

Recently, I wrote a piece on the impact of White teachers on students of color. In this piece, I explained the role of implicit bias as it relates to the perception of student behavior by teachers who often lack the cultural, racial, or community identification with their students. I also stated how troubling it is that these same teachers are often the first line in school disciplinary processes. The dynamic these conditions create in urban public education results in a population of children of color being taught by adults who are likely White. The lack of understanding of intersectionality in this situation can create very real cultural misalignment between teachers and their students. Under zero-tolerance policies and rigid disciplinary practices, students of color are often disciplined for minor transgressions, most notably, disobeying authority.

Let’s take a moment to consider the premise behind disobeying authority. When White feminists called on women to put on their pink pussy cat hats, nasty woman t-shirts, and march together in major cities across the country to protest 45, misogyny, sexism, and pay inequity (in spite of the fact that it was White women who put Trump in office), it was considered a peaceful protest. We named it activism. This was held up as a show of female empowerment and sisterhood. As a society, we told these activist women they were being principled and fighting oppression. We called it feminism. This seemed to capture the notion of the American spirit, what our founding fathers fought to create and establish… Protests and activism in the face of oppression and tyranny. (Sidebar: I feel so motivated right now — and yes, there is both truth and sarcasm in that statement).

When Black people have engaged in similar activities at various moments in history, it doesn’t quite turn out the same way for us — for an analogy, look no further than Philadelphia after the recent Eagle’s Superbowl win. While they were said to have had a “raucous celebration,” Black people are labeled aggressive, angry, emotional, dangerous, and disrespectful. In short, we are seen as disobeying authority. We have officers and authorities at our rallies seeking to control, silence, and discipline us disproportionately to how they have engaged White feminists at rallies. We are arrested at higher rates and often blamed for any violence that ensues in spite of the fact that police behave more aggressively at these rallies and are more likely to engage in combative behavior (Double sidebar: Now, I don’t feel so moved or empowered anymore — there is absolute truth in that statement).

But do you see how that works right there? So how does that translate to school environments, especially in NYC? (Triple sidebar: I reference NYC a lot because I attended public schools here, my daughter attends public schools here, and we live here — but we could argue similar experiences across the country for Black girls.)

Many private schools across NYC practice progressive pedagogy; the students who are engaged in experiential learning are also encouraged to be opinionated, engaged, inquisitive, curious, outspoken, thinkers and learners (its actually a pretty fantastic thing and I wish I could have given my daughter that type of opportunity). The children are expected to be the next generation of leaders in this country and therefore their minds and spirits are intentionally nurtured to remain intact during their formative learning years. So when a girl excitedly blurts out, “I disagree!”, in class, she is asked “Why?” and encouraged to think and say her truth. A conversation commences with other children chiming in with their respective thoughts. The majority of the time, in these classroom environments, the children are White; this isn’t the experience of most children of color.

In NYC, over 80% of the public school student population is non-White and nearly 60% of the teaching force is White. Given the dynamics outlined above between how White people are encouraged to behave and how Black people are expected to behave in this country, the classroom experience for Black girls often creates the conditions where being outspoken, excited, empowered, or an activist is often viewed negatively by teachers and administrators. Instead, too often that same student may be viewed as aggressive, angry, emotional, dangerous, and disrespectful. And under these conditions where she is being perpetually silenced and disciplined, a Black girl will get lost in the school, she will become disengaged, until she ultimately gives up and leaves — the Pushout occurs. And teachers and schools often do not recognize their own complicity in this scenario — thus they bear no responsibility for their part.

According to a 2016 study by the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and the African American Policy Forum, nationwide Black girls comprise of 16% of the student population (K-12) compared to their White peers who are roughly 57%. However, in NYC, Black girls account for 34% of the public school population (compared to 13% of White girls) and 56% of the disciplinary cases (compared to 5% for White girls). Additionally, Black girls are 53x more likely than White girls to be expelled, 10x more likely to be suspended, and if New York City schools eliminated the disobeying authority rule, school suspension rates would be reduced by 20%.

Instead, we are seeing increases in disciplinary against Black girls based on policies that do not consider the daily experiences of girls. As an example, a girl unexpectedly gets her period at school, she asks to use the bathroom, the teacher won’t let her, he’s male, he’s White. She’s 12 or 13, Black, he doesn’t resemble the men in her family, her comfort level in disclosing is cause for embarrassment, so she just gets up and walks out. Or if she doesn’t leave, she ties her sweater around her pants and is told to remove it because it does not comply with school policy. In both instances, this girl is seen as disobeying authority while seeking to live in her own humanity — again, see how that works?

This translates to a need to examine the interplay between school culture/environment, disciplinary policies/practices, and types of bias that exists in classrooms that perpetuate the Pushout. The data points to the fact that Black girls are having a different experience than their White, Asian, or even Latina peers in public schools here in NYC. And we just need to listen to them, Black girls will willingly share their experiences with the hope of being heard and having their experiences changed. Focus groups have reported that many Black girls are adultified by teachers and administrators because they are perceived as having strong personalities. Some Black girls experience school environments as oppressive and a waste of time, the presence of law enforcement and metal detectors feels intrusive and devaluing, they wonder why they are so easily disciplined for behavior yet claims of sexual harassment and bullying yield no response. Ultimately, because they cannot meet White hetero-normative expectations of behavior, Black girls punished for it. In short, many feel unsafe, disregarded, and disconnected from the school experience; in their disengagement, they leave.

In a 2017 participatory research study conducted by Girls for Gender Equity, girls ranging in age from 9–23 where asked about their daily school experiences. The girls described school environments oppressive and expressed a desire for culturally and ethnically diverse curriculum so that they could see themselves reflected in their learning. The girls expressed anger over being disciplined for disobeying authority while their claims of bullying and sexual harassment in school were disregarded. Under these conditions, many girls begin to show signs of “acting out” and become disengaged from their learning environment. This is an example of some of the conditions that can lead to the Pushout.

A 2016 report by NYC Comptroller, Scott Stringer, found that while graduation rates had improved overall since 2010 in New York City, during this same period, a cluster of about 110 high schools experienced an 11 point decline in graduation rates (from 60% to 51%). It will not be surprising to some that these schools are clustered in the Bronx and have a student population that is predominantly Black and Latinx. With additional time and research, I am sure we can find a correlation between graduation rates, prevalence of discipline, and school enviroment within this cluster.

As a country, if we really care about quality education, educational attainment, closing the achievement gap, and improving our standing on the global stage, we must begin to address the disparities and inequities within our systems and institutions whose mission it is to educate and socialize children of color. Through the use of critical race theory and intersectionality in our analysis, we can begin addressing the achievement for children of color K-12. We need to:

  • Include culturally responsive practices, along with anti-racist/anti-bias curriculum as a requirement for teacher preparation;
  • Establish a clear, reflective understanding of implicit bias and its manifestations in classrooms;
  • Schools should require ongoing inquiry and engagement as a condition of professional development for teachers;
  • Create on-site mental health supports for children in public schools. This is based on the fact that 77% of the public school student population in NYC meets or exceeds the federal poverty line and there is trauma associated with pervasive poverty;
  • Establish opportunities for Black girls to see themselves positively reflected and affirmed; and
  • Review and assess the purpose of certain disciplinary policies that disengage students and create oppressive environments.

If we can humanize and engage the learning experiences for Black girls in schools, we can create a pipeline for them to enjoy their humanity, learning, individuality, and success and in this context, all girls can find empowerment and success.

© Akilah Rosado and Musings from a Brooklyn Chick, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Akilah Rosado and Musing from a Brooklyn Chick with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Afro-Latina Brooklyn Born Race Scholar — I write about anti-Black racism and systems of oppression in schools, politics, and policy.

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