Earlier this month, the African American Policy Forum released a report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, written by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Columbia University law professor. The report provides data from Boston and New York public schools on the ways girls are disciplined depending on race. Not surprisingly, girls of color and especially black girls are exposed to harsher punishment and at a higher frequency. Though more boys are suspended than girls overall, racial and gender disparities are significant. Black males were suspended three times as often as white males, while Black girls were suspended six times more than white female students.
As a result of zero-tolerance policies applied with gender and racial bias, students of color are removed from their learning environments and unnecessarily exposed to the criminal justice system, something referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Girls in particular face unique challenges when it comes to zero-tolerance policies that don’t allow for individual discretion by a teacher or counselor. Sexual trauma and harassment, high incidence of interpersonal violence, teen pregnancy, and family responsibilities contribute to emotional, behavioral, and practical challenges that affect a girls’ school life.
Excessive discipline cases have been making the news for years now, bringing the issue to light. Recently, video footage from a Baltimore middle school shows the beating and pepper-spraying of three girls by a school security officer. In 2014, a Detroit honor roll student was suspended during her senior year for accidentally bringing a pocketknife to a football game and in 2007, and a six-year-old Florida girl was arrested for having a tantrum. This report is the first of its kind to bring attention to the fact that girls of color are nowhere near exempt from harsh treatment and it does not make sense to focus policy on boys alone.
News coverage of stories like these helps to inform a wider audience of issues facing Black girls and the AAPF report includes a social media campaign to do the same.
#BlackGirlsMatter tracks conversations on Twitter about Black girls in the school-to-prison pipeline, gender and race biases that cause this disparity, and the way Black women and girls have long been left out of conversations addressing racially biased policies and practices.
An important fact raised in the report is that girls are largely excluded from current efforts to break down the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s generally thought that boys suffer worse consequences than their female counterparts, and unfortunately, this myopic thinking influences policy. While the overall number of Black men who are the direct victims of a racially biased criminal justice system is higher than the number of Black women, this often translates to a complete disregard for Black women and girls. Just as it is possible to address the difficulties officers face in policing while at the same time holding them accountable to the public, it is also possible to tackle the needs of Black men and women at the same time. Outside of the Black feminist community, not enough attention is paid to Black women and girls who suffer the same injustices, but are not acknowledged.
Black feminists have increasingly been pushing back on this type of thinking and their outspokenness has spurred real-world action. Women leaders of #BlackLivesMatter protests have made a conscious effort to include the names of Black female victims in protests to make sure their lives and deaths are not ignored in the process. In 2014, when President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper program feminists activists, scholars, and organizations including Alice Walker and Rosario Dawson, signed onto an open letter. The letter made it clear that leaving out Black girls perpetuates the myth that girls are doing just fine and ends up neglecting them to the detriment of the entire community. Also publicized by the AAPF, the letter and its topic were discussed on Twitter using the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait and has become a full campaign to realign MBK.
Stereotypes of Black women contribute to the erasure of Black girls from the conversation about excessive use of force and discipline. Historically, Black women have endured racial and sexual abuse and fought tirelessly for justice, but despite their many contributions have been relegated to the sidelines in public.
Now, in the age of social media activism, Black women activists have an expanded platform to resist these entrenched biases and insist that Black women and girls be considered and involved in policy decisions. Hopefully, this is a continuing trend and we see a greater understanding of and concern for the future of Black girls in this country.