BY MONIQUE W. MORRIS
Six-year old Salecia Johnson recently had a tantrum in class.
Only, the tantrum wasn’t responded to with love and teaching about personal accountability. She was removed from her classroom and suspended from school for the remainder of the school year.
While her case rightfully sparked outrage over the “zero tolerance policing” that criminalizes our children, unfortunately, her story is not unique. In 2010, a 13-year old Black girl near Chicago was charged with felony theft after finding her teacher’s glasses and seeking to return them. In 2008, a 12-year old Black girl was allegedly beaten and arrested in Houston by police who mistook her for a prostitute because she was wearing tight shorts. In 2007, a Black Los Angeles high school girl was slammed to the ground and arrested after dropping a piece of cake on the floor; and in that same year in Florida, another girl – just one year younger than Salecia Johnson is now – was arrested and led out of her kindergarten classroom in handcuffs for having a tantrum.
It’s time we pay attention to what is happening to our girls.
Today, there is a problematic arc to the narrative about criminalization and race. In most cases, the bias in the social justice community is toward males, suggesting that because their numerical representation among incarcerated populations is so high, addressing their criminalization would have the residual effect of healing Black families and communities. This narrative is accompanied by either a dismissal of the increasing criminalization and victimization of Black females, or a complete disregard for their conditions as strategies are being developed to end racial bias in the administration of justice.
Black females are considered “fine” to stand behind the males in their communities while the discourse on racial bias in the administration of justice renders them invisible and disempowered to engage as worthy of equal investigation.
Nationwide, Black girls were more than three times as likely as White girls to be arrested for a person offense in 2008; and in the area of public disorder, the rate of arrest for Black girls experienced a 300 percent increase, compared with an increase of 180 percent for Black boys. However, the invisibility of Black females prevents the development of policies and practices that consider the unique conditions of Black girls. The Civil Rights Project of UCLA released a study, Suspended Education in California, which found that in each of the 10 largest districts in the state, Black girls had the highest rate of suspension among girls. In Los Angeles, the risk of suspension was greater for Black girls than it was for all other boys besides Black boys.
However, this issue is not unique to California. According to research conducted by Losen and Skiba (2010), it was Black girls who experienced the greatest per-district increase in suspensions (5.3 percentage points) between 2002 and 2006, compared with 1.7 percentage points for Black males; but there has been no coordinated, well-funded effort to reduce suspension rates for Black girls – only for Black boys. Instead, the arguments that have been used to explain the increasing incarceration of Black girls have been couched in misogynist rhetoric and racism (e.g., that Black girls are more “masculine” and therefore more inclined to violence like their white counterparts). Like their male counterparts, Black females are more likely to be arrested by police officers if they are perceived as “loud and aggressive” and many Black girls are suspended for their lack of conformity to White, middle-class notions of femininity. Research has found that they are punished, indeed criminalized, for speaking loudly to a teacher, for challenging a teacher’s ability to effectively teach, and for using profanity.
While these behaviors may be considered rude according by the social norms of many cultures, in none of them would they be considered criminal. In some ways, perverse age compression may be spreading the culpability of Black females, rendering Black girls subject to punitive systems and conditions that reproduce many of the same racially biased outcomes that are seen among adult women. So, younger Black girls may be seen as more adult-like, and as a result, they might be responded to with more adult-like sanctions, compromising their ability to learn from their mistakes, to be instructed on the proper ways to manage disagreement, and to grow into productive adulthood.
So, where do we go from here? If we increase the rigor of our discussions about racial justice, we can reframe the narrative about gendered suffering in the Black community such that it is not a zero-sum game. Inquiry into the “school to prison pipeline” must use an intersectional framework such that it can actually see Salecia, and other Black girls like her. Only then will researchers, advocates, and policymakers find that perhaps, the framework of “pipeline” is too simplistic and not broad enough to capture the convergent processes that funnel Black girls down into a carceral abyss.
Only then will advocates and researchers examine “gender-responsive” services through a lens of cultural competency. Only when we stop marginalizing gender in the racial justice discourse will we be able to change the narrative about criminalization and race; and end this nonsensical practice of arresting children—both male and female—for being children.
MONIQUE W. MORRIS is the CEO of the MWM Consulting Group, LLC, a research and technical assistance firm that advances concepts of fairness, diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Too Beautiful For Words (MWM Books) and over 50 articles and other publications on social justice issues. For more information, visit www.moniqueworris.com.