The Black Girl Pushout

Monique W. Morris, the co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, offers tactics to work against damaging stigmas.

Brynn Anderson / Reuters

The “good girl” and “bad girl” dichotomy, as chronicled by Monique W. Morris in Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, is a condition that has plagued black girls and women for time immemorial. Society’s deeply entrenched expectations of black girls—influenced by racism and patriarchy—has led to a ritual whereby these young women are often mischaracterized, and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. In short, black girls are devalued based on how others perceive them.

As evidence, Morris offers the historical account of a black teen named Claudette Colvin, who refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in March 1955 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-skinned, and pregnant. According to elders within Montgomery’s black community and others, these factors, taken all together, made Colvin unsuitable as a standard-bearer for the civil-rights movement.

This inclination to judge and condemn black girls is also seen in recent examples that sparked national outrage, including Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old Florida girl expelled for a harmless science experiment; Dajerria Becton, the 15-year-old girl tossed and pinned to the ground by a McKinney, Texas, police officer during a pool-party squabble; and Shakara, the 16-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. A veteran education, civil-rights, and social-justice scholar, Morris is the co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, a group dedicated to combatting disparities affecting black women, girls, and their families. 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, incarceration , and 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. I believe it’s important for us to understand that the negative socioeconomic conditions for black women and girls are related to how race, gender, class, sexual identity, ability, and other identities interact with each other to undermine equal access to opportunity. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” which captures this idea. 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. Talk about some of the ways that institutional racism, classism, and sexism overlap to portray black girls as “delinquent,” and in the process impede their hopes and aspirations?

Morris: The book talks about educational institutions as “structures of dominance” that can either reinforce negative outcomes and ghettoize opportunity or actively disrupt conditions that render black girls vulnerable to criminalization. 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. Too often, when people read these statistics, they ask, “What did these girls do?” when often, it’s not about what they did, but rather, the culture of discipline and punishment that leaves little room for error when one is black and female.

Black girls describe being labeled and suspended for being “disruptive” or “defiant” if they ask questions or otherwise engage in activities that adults consider affronts to their authority. Across the country, we see black girls being placed in handcuffs for having tantrums in kindergarten classrooms, thrown out of class for asking questions, sent home from school for arriving in shorts on a hot day, labeled as “truant” if they are being commercially sexually exploited, and labeled as “defiant” if they speak up in the face of what they [identify] to be injustice. 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. Our first priority should be keeping them in schools, not finding new ways to render them “delinquent.”

Anderson: A recurring theme in the book is the use of contemporary and historical anecdotes to underscore how black girls and women throughout history have been the victims of discrimination and exploitation. 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. There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lions have their own historian, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” That is something that was at the forefront of my mind while researching and writing this book. Not only am I interested in the story of the “lion” so to speak, I am also interested in the story of the fly on the lion’s tail, the zebra who may be looking on, and the impact of the hunt on the greater environment in which other lions are being raised.

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.

I include narratives from cis- and transgender black girls and young women, black girls who describe themselves as “gay,” black girls who are mothers … black girls who run away, black girls who are locked up, and black girls who fight. 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.

Anderson: Clearly some of the most blistering accounts emanate from black girls’ public-school experiences, where racialized and gendered expectations seem to leave them feeling simultaneously targeted and invisible. The use of zero tolerance and harsh school discipline is a culprit, along with the attitudes and behaviors of school staff. How do these elements work in tandem to derail black girls’ education?

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 categories for which data are collected by the U.S. 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.

[Further,] black girls express that a caring teacher is most important in their learning environment. 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. However, research studies have found that African American children receive “more criticism and less support” from teachers—conditions that could alienate and push black children away from learning. 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.

Anderson: You convincingly detail how policies and practices often unite to “save” black boys and boys of color while black girls seldom generate public concern. 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. [For example,] when policymakers—at all levels—discuss ways to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline,” they should recognize that for girls, the educational pathways to confinement are varied and often connected to their histories of victimization and exploitation. 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.

Anderson: The book’s appendix poses a range of intriguing questions to help parents, community members, and educators work together to uplift and improve black girls’ lives. Are you hopeful that the end result will be much better outcomes—steeped in equity, respect, and fairness—for black girls?

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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