“Our girls have been left in the shadows for far too long,” said UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw on Thursday afternoon to an appreciative audience that had gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss the plight of black girls and the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Girls who are black are almost by definition set up to be read as noncompliant. … This is a telling indictment of a school regime that students clearly understand to be far more invested in disciplining students than in helping them,” Crenshaw said. “The ‘strong black woman’ narrative has been contorted and used in so many harmful ways, [and] has catastrophic trickle-down effects to black girls in schools, whose needs for mental and social support go unaddressed.”
The event at which Crenshaw, along with National Black Women’s Justice Institute co-founder Monique Morris, appeared—“Rethink Discipline: A Conversation on Black Girls in the School-to-Prison Pipeline”—was hosted by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), founding members of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls.
“We see more and more black girls getting in trouble, and we need to move to correct that issue,” Kelly said. “Women and girls aren’t being addressed.”
She was talking about incidents such as the 2014 case of a 12-year-old Georgia girl who faced criminal charges for writing the word “hi” on a locker-room wall, while a white female classmate who was also involved got a much lighter penalty. Then there was the case in 2015 of the 16-year-old African-American student who was dragged from her desk by a Spring Valley, S.C., resource officer. There are programs such as President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper that have made recommendations to help men and boys of color, but Kelly noted that there aren’t the same kinds of initiatives aimed at young black women.
“It seems like women get lost in the shuffle,” Kelly said.
Crenshaw, co-author of the study “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” said that because there is so little public discussion about the conditions that young women of color face, people assume that they’re doing just fine. She pointed out that they’re not.
“I firmly believe that because we don’t have a conversation to talk about trauma, we don’t have a conversation to talk about sexuality, we don’t have a conversation to talk about the asymmetries in solidarity, it is [for] all of those reasons that we’ve lost the Voting Rights Act, we’ve lost affirmative action,” Crenshaw explained. “Even if we don’t care about black women per se, the issue isn’t just about black women; it is about the interests of the community as a whole.”
Crenshaw believes that more robust tools are needed to understand how bias plays out against “black female bodies.”
“Teachers in schools have been shown to respond to girls who are black doing some of the same things as boys, but it being interpreted far more negatively because it is coming from a body that is black and female,” she said.
Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, told the audience about the way black girls are affected by things that some may see as innocuous, such as dress codes.
“We find that black girls are being differentially affected by dress codes, largely because we haven’t got a framework for understanding victimization. … Girls show up—a white girl and a black girl in the same pair of shorts—but black girl has a booty and suddenly it’s a problem,” Morris said. “But the girls know this and they feel this and they get sent home.”
Morris said that such reactions from adults are rooted in bias and stereotypes, as are the differences in how black girls are disciplined for infractions.
“[When] they’re fighting, in those cases what we find is that black girls are disproportionately removed from school when they engage in similar behavior to their white counterparts,” Morris noted. “It’s not just that they are fighting; they are black girls fighting.”
Worse, she said, because black girls are disproportionately the ones who are referred to law enforcement or the juvenile-justice system after a suspension or citation on campus, it affects their ability to succeed.
“When we push kids out of school, when we establish an educational climate that provides incentive and actually tells kids to go home … we are denying them a critical opportunity for their own well-being,” Morris explained. “Education is a critical protective factor against involvement in the criminal and juvenile legal system, so when you do this act, of telling … girls they cannot go to school, you are engaging in the facilitation of their criminalization.”
Crenshaw added that young women of color are being hurt by stereotypes, ranging from society’s view of “what a proper girl is” to the image of the “strong black woman.”
Morris is hoping to see several things come out of Thursday’s event.
“I hope we are able to accomplish a very loud drum roll for what is to come in response to the needs of our women and girls … and that black women and girls understand that they are at the center of a policy conversation that will hopefully impact their lives,” Morris said. “I hope [today] begins to illuminate how complex these issues are. None of the oppressions that women and girls are facing come from just one policy or practice. It will take a collection of policy practice, critical engagement from policymakers and from our communities, to begin to dismantle those oppressions.”
Morris added that she hopes this is the first of many meetings, at the local, national and federal levels, aimed at stopping the policies and cultural beliefs that criminalize and dehumanize black girls in America.