In a classroom at the University of Pennsylvania, more than a dozen black girls and women gather on a recent Saturday afternoon. A simple game begins as an icebreaker for the workshop. “Stand up if your racial identity ever made anyone doubt your abilities,” the session’s leader says. Everyone stands. “Stand up if you’ve ever been told to act like a lady.” Everyone stands again. “Stand up if you’ve ever been called aggressive or bossy.” Universal affirmation. “Stand up if you’ve ever taken AP classes.” Less than five rise.
Across generations—from high-school students to professionals with salt-and-pepper hair—a common reality appears. “Day-to-day things—you’re bossy, you’re aggressive, you’re not ladylike—all of us share that experience,” explained Melanie Horton, a 17-year-old senior from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Horton helped lead the session, which focused on gender, race, and class expectations and was part of a recent “Penn Summit,” a symposium sponsored by the school’s Center for the Study of Race & Equity focused on exploring the educational lives of black girls and women.
With a tone of resignation, Horton recalled a counselor who she said doubted her aptitude for an honors biology course. She also spoke of a teacher who belittled her in front of an entire class after she questioned the cost of an Advanced Placement exam. “Constantly being treated as if I don’t belong” led the teen to transfer out of her district’s only public high school to a cyber school—a move that Horton described as “the best of a bad situation.”
A mounting body of evidence suggests that black students across the country face daunting odds in their quest for an equitable education. Federal statistics show that black students in the U.S. are suspended and expelled three times as often than white students. Research on racial discrepancies in discipline underscores that the higher rates of punishment among black students don’t correlate with a greater tendency to violate school policies—rather, the data suggests they’re disciplined more harshly than whites and other students for identical infractions. A number of studies also suggest that racial stereotyping by teachers is a key reason black students are often stigmatized as both troublemakers prone to misbehavior and underachievers incapable of academic excellence.
Given the growing recognition that race and poverty hinder educational opportunity and outcomes, leaders ranging from policymakers to businesspeople have committed to tackling this crisis. Yet their interventions and solutions are centered on boys of color. This often renders black girls all but invisible.
“The gender-exclusive focus on boys (of color) as ground zero … continues to undermine the well-being of our entire community,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia who cofounded the African American Policy Forum, a gender and racial-justice think tank based in New York City. “We have to accept that there are wrongs that are happening to black girls.”
Much of the current discourse revolving around boys of color is driven by President Obama’s signature initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which is aimed at removing barriers to education and employment—closing the “persistent opportunity gaps” faced by this demographic. Launched last February, the program has since expanded to include 60 of the nation’s largest school districts, pledging to improve access to preschool and gifted courses, reduce suspensions and expulsions, and boost graduation rates. And in a nod to this initiative, just last week Obama announced a nonprofit spinoff—My Brother’s Keeper Alliance—which comes with more than $80 million from major corporations, among other backers, for programs earmarked for young black and Latino men.
The president’s crusade is spreading across the country. In Washington, D.C., for example, the public-schools chancellor and mayor earlier this year promoted their own version of My Brother’s Keeper: An initiative titled “Empowering Males of Color,” which aims to bring the public and private sectors together and invest $20 million in specialized programs to shore up the academic performance among black and Latino boys.
The emphasis on boys is also gaining traction in Boston. There, Nikki Delk Barnes, the principal fellow at KIPP Academy Boston, which is part of the national KIPP charter network, has designed programs to change the trajectory of boys’ lives. “Our school is 100 percent black and Latino, so everything is targeted to that group,” Barnes said. When school staff looked at trends for the 2013-14 year, however, a troubling pattern surfaced: The boys were suspended twice as often as the girls were. “While our suspensions are lower than the average [rate] in Boston Public Schools, we were not excited about this,” she said. “It was my job to change our culture and build up our male students’ ability to manage their emotions.”
Barnes in part credits gender-exclusive advisory groups that meet daily with empowering the school’s boys—giving them the agency and voice of which they’re so often deprived. “It’s the place where we learn that their parents broke up, dad just got out of jail, or a brother was shot,” she said. “It’s where they have a chance to argue and fix it before they jump into work for the day. It’s absolutely crucial to our desire to have students’ voices heard.” Moreover, to build rapport and trust with the school’s families, Barnes started after-school “Mother to Son Meetings,” in which mothers, grandmothers, and aunts get together to discuss raising males. Based on the Langston Hughes poem, Barnes said, the meetings offer a “very organic space to cry, laugh and be open with their challenges.” Genuine student-teacher relationships, paired with high expectations for all students, are the school’s core ingredients, Barnes continued, but these factors are especially important for black boys because “low expectations have been their enemy.”
But for Crenshaw, a scholar in race and gender theory, the widespread targeting at boys only is a shell game. “Even though we might experience racism in different ways,” she said, “at the end of the day, it’s a group experience—and at the end of the day, the solutions should be a group experience.” She points to D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is touting its initiative as a testament to its commitment to “advancing achievement and opportunity … for boys and young men of color.”
Yet the challenges faced by their female counterparts don’t seem to get as much attention—even though one in four black girls in the nation’s capital will become teen mothers. That significantly lowers their prospects for high-school completion.
In D.C., black girls stack up poorly with black boys on measures ranging from school satisfaction and attendance to reading at grade level. In some areas, they fare far behind their peers. Nationally, the same holds true. Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls are, compared to black boys, who are suspended three times more often than their white peers are. In interviews, black girls report feeling marginalized in learning environments that they often describe as unsafe and unwelcoming and subjected to sexual harassment and violence. And family responsibilities, like caring for siblings, disproportionately fall on black girls. Societal biases and gender-based obligations often combine to derail their education.
Black girls are mostly ignored in policy discussions. This in turn results in scarce research-based interventions designed to improve the outcomes for this demographic, often leaving the false impression that girls are fine and don’t have a problem. To position the needs of black girls more prominently in policy talks, a new school of thought and action led mainly by women of color is emerging. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Women’s Law Center, and the African American Policy Forum are changing the status quo with reports, studies, and the #WhyWeCantWait movement—which is urging Obama to include women in his initiative—that challenge single-gender racial agendas and the erasure of females of color.
The responsibility that schools and educators have to better support black girls is also gaining attention. Sherell McArthur, an educational researcher at Georgia State University who studies black girls, says understanding among teachers and administrators about how race, gender, and class affect students differently is fundamental.
Research has found that educators focus more on the behavior and attitudes of black girls than on their academic development, dismissing them as “loud,” “ghetto,” or “sassy,” McArthur said. This is an obstacle to the academic success of black girls if educators judge them based on their presentation instead of their intellectual abilities, she said.
“When we examine … the unique racialized-gender position of black girls, we have to focus on the intersections of race, gender and class,” she said, emphasizing the need to create more opportunities that allow their voices to be heard. “Black girls are judged according to a meter of white girlhood as the standard.”
Horton, the high-school senior, found the power to push boundaries and speak up through a girls-rights organization in Philadelphia. The group sponsors activism trainings on gender justice designed and facilitated by girls of color and works to bring these issues to the forefront. “I think it’s interesting that the labels that we’re all given are so unified among all of us,” said Horton, who plans to study psychology and sociology at Tufts University in the fall.
“It brings up the scope, so it no longer feels like a personal issue,” she said. “It’s a societal issue.”