Suspended Six Times More Often? Nope, Some Kids Aren’t All Right
Last February, President Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper, a new initiative designed to improve the lives of boys of color. The program is geared toward empowering young men of color, and Department of Education officials rolled out a slew of troubling statistics on black male suspensions, expulsions, juvenile arrest, and youth incarceration to accompany its launch.
“When we let this many boys and young men fall behind—we are crippling our ability to reach our full potential as a nation,” the White House said in a statement.
But many feminist activists and their allies challenged the decision to focus only on boys. Last June, more than 1,000 female scholars and activists signed an open letter, written by the African American Policy Forum, which asked why the initiative excluded girls. In November the White House released a report on work the Obama administration has done to expand opportunities for girls and women of color, but a formal initiative in the vein of My Brother’s Keeper has yet to be realized.
Now a report released on Wednesday from the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies confirms that when we say black lives matter, we need to be talking about both males and females. In Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, researchers analyzed dropout, graduation, and suspension rates along both race and gender lines at both the national and local level.
“As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper, we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, the report’s lead author, said in a statement.
The researchers found that in New York City and Boston, black girls were 10 and 11 times more likely to be subject to disciplinary action than their white counterparts, putting them on par with the treatment of black boys. At the national level, an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that while black boys are indeed the most harshly punished group in American schools, black girls are suspended at six times the rate of their white female counterparts.
“While Black girls and Black boys share a common racialized risk of punishment in school, Black girls face a statistically greater chance of suspension and expulsion compared to other students of the same gender,” the report’s authors wrote. “The prevalence of racial disparity in school discipline is well-known, but the greater racial disparity that Black female students face has not figured prominently in research or advocacy around school achievement,” they added.
It turns out that being suspended or expelled puts girls on the school-to-prison pipeline too. Prison rates for women have exploded in the past 20 years, and black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of their white female peers.
The report’s authors also found that although the numbers of black women in college are greater today than ever before, more than 34 percent of African American girls did not graduate from high school on time in 2010. In a society that’s more likely to hire a white ex-convict over a black person with a clean record, being pushed out of school can have devastating effects on women of color, who are far more likely to live in poverty than any other group.
Crenshaw, a noted legal scholar, has studied the intersections of race and gender in justice system throughout her career. Because girls of color grapple with many of the same issues plaguing their male counterparts, and also face additional challenges such as increased risk of abuse or sexual assault, she and the other researchers believe that we’d be doing young women—and the nation at large—a disservice if policy makers continue to leave them out.
“We can no longer afford to leave young women and girls of color at the margins of our concerns with respect to the achievement gap, the dropout crisis, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” wrote the report’s authors. “Instead, we must develop gender and race-conscious prisms that capture the vulnerabilities they experience today.”
Expanding counseling and support for teen moms, ensuring that “student conflict is not unwarrantedly subjected to criminal sanctions,” and providing equitable funding for programs that support black girls are just some of the policy recommendations the report makes. That last point in particular should be a reminder of the need of an official My Sister’s Keeper program at the national level.
“We hope that ongoing efforts to address the crisis that faces boys of color will create opportunities to address the serious barriers facing their female peers,” concluded the report’s authors. “We encourage all stakeholders, researchers, funders, and concerned members of the public to broaden their understanding of the current crisis facing youth of color, and to commit to expanding both the conversation and the resources necessary to address these concerns.”