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The black girl pushout
Morris in Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schoolsis a condition that has plagued black girls and women for time immemorial. In short, black girls are devalued based on how others perceive them. As evidence, Morris offers the historical of a black teen named Claudette Colvinwho refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in March before Rosa Parks made history with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Colvin was seemingly an ideal role model against segregated busing—she was an A student who had studied Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Jim Crow racial injustices. Yet Colvin was feisty and argued with the white policeman before getting arrested. She was also working-class, dark-skinnedand pregnant. This inclination to judge and condemn black girls is also seen in recent examples that sparked national outrage, including Kiera Wilmotthe year-old Florida girl expelled for a harmless science experiment; Dajerria Bectonthe year-old girl tossed and pinned to the ground by a McKinney, Texas, police officer during a pool-party squabble; and Shakarathe year-old girl dragged out of her seat and thrown across a South Carolina classroom over a cell phone.
As Pushout documents, these are hardly isolated cases. The stigmas many attach to black girls has far-reaching and damaging consequences, Morris writes, with devastating effects on their academic, social, and emotional lives.
She recently shared some thoughts with The Atlantic on interventions to help black girls in schools. The interview that follows has been edited lightly and condensed for clarity. Melinda D. Anderson: The shocking statistics you cite in the opening chapter—on poverty, dropouts, incarcerationand homicide—paint a chilling picture of the plight of black girls and women today.
Can you briefly discuss some of the complex dynamics, the social and economic factors, triggering this situation? Monique W. Morris: The dynamics here are, indeed, complex. Black women and girls must often navigate through a landscape that reinforces multidimensional stereotypes and debilitating narratives that negatively impact how black femininity is understood.
Implicit racial and gender biases may also inform how we read the behaviors and actions of black girls and women, and how all of this comes together to guide whether black girls are safe in their communities and whether they have access to quality employment, food, housing, and education. Anderson: You write that black girls are frequently marginalized and criminalized by institutions that should be safeguarding their well-being.
Black girls are 16 percent of girls in schools, but 42 percent of girls receiving corporal punishment, 42 percent of girls expelled with or without educational services, 45 percent of girls with at least one out-of-school suspension, 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement, and 34 percent of girls arrested on campus.
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We also see black girls criminalized arrested on campus or referred to law enforcement instead of engaged as children and teens whose mistakes could be addressed through non-punitive restorative approaches. For girls, education is a critical protective factor against involvement with the juvenile and criminal legal systems.
Why was it important for you to bring the voices of black girls and young women into the narrative? Morris: I believe in the healing power of the narrative. Our stories can help us—in this case, as a nation—develop empathic responses to complex social issues.
The public typically understands black femininity according to distinct and narrow stereotypes about black women and girls as hypersexual, sassy, conniving, or loud. Centering the voices of black women and girls moves us toward a deeper understanding about their lived experiences, and forces us to confront the routine and often ignored victimization, exploitation and discrimination that occur in their lives—and how we can ultimately develop a critical response to interrupt the oppression that they experience and internalize.
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I also include high achieving black girls who have experienced what they perceive as differential treatment in the classroom. All of these [stories] narratives help us construct a better understanding of how black girls are uniquely vulnerable to the marginalization that occurs in schools, and what we can do about it.
The use of zero tolerance and harsh school discipline is a culprit, along with the attitudes and behaviors of school staff. Morris: When we combine latent misperceptions about black femininity with punitive discipline policies, we are paving the way for black girls to be disproportionately pushed out of schools. Black girls are the only group of girls overrepresented in all discipline for which data are collected by the U.
Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
That is alarming. Zero tolerance and other punitive policies in schools leave many school leaders and educators with only one response to young people who act out.
When they connect with a teacher and feel a genuine love and appreciation for their promise as scholars, their relationship with school is more positive. Recent examples in New York City and Georgia demonstrate the hard work that is still needed to produce learning environments that acknowledge and invest in the positive potential of black girls.
How can policymakers—at the local, state, and national levels—positively intervene to change the trajectory for black girls? Morris: I believe that the investment in black boys, and other boys of color, is necessary.
However, that investment should never be to the exclusion of black girls. Blanket policies and practices that have been constructed based upon the experiences of boys and young men must be reevaluated. Toward the goal of generating policy that responds to the needs of girls as well as boys, interventions should include specific training and professional-development opportunities for all school personnel on gender-based violence and implicit bias, as well as mandated partnerships with intermediaries that specialize in culturally competent, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed practices.
Are you hopeful that the end result will be much better outcomes—steeped in equity, respect, and fairness—for black girls?
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Morris: That is exactly why I wrote Pushout. Our girls are resilient, but they need their community of concerned adults to help them construct a new narrative. I believe that the failure to include black girls in our articulation of American democracy has relegated too many of them to the margins of society.
So, not only do I hope that we will immediately galvanize our human, monetary, and institutional resources to respond to the crisis of school pushout among black girls, but I also hope that we will commit over the long-run as educators, policymakers, parents, and students, to the construction of a robust collection of policy-and-practice interventions that address the underlying conditions to this phenomenon.
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