Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

I just finished reading Monique W. Morris’ Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (2016). The book is about how institutions’ accepted norms and routines funnel Black girls out of school and into the criminal justice system. This is not “school-to-prison pipeline” research, but a broader, “school-to-confinement pathways” examination, offering raw statistics within a narrative about the nuances that work against Black women’s educational and economic success.

Broadly speaking, Morris explains how this particular group is both Black AND female, experiencing disenfranchisement via both. “During institutional slavery, Black women, like their male counterparts, picked cotton, constructed railroads, and were whipped, flogged, and mutilated under oppressive and dehumanizing conditions. These were deplorable conditions that affected men and women alike. However, the gendered way in which racism has played out in their lives also meant they were routinely raped and forced to serve as wet nurses to the newborn children of slave owners. Racialized gender stereotypes about Black women and other women of color shape how they interact with the world today, and how the world perceives and interacts with them” (p. 180). Morris argues cultural assumptions about Black women being “loose in their morals” and readily available to men hails from this historical context. Black girls are disciplined for dress code violations at a disproportionate rate than their White counterparts, for wearing the same outfits. She explains “permission to fail,” an implicit bias that Black girls are less capable of academic success and are “allowed” to underperform, as a component of this historical context that still echoes today. Black girls are disproportionally suspended from school for “falling asleep, standing up for themselves, asking questions, wearing natural hair, wearing revealing clothing, and in some cases engaging in unruly (although not criminal or delinquent) acts in school – mostly because what constitutes a threat to safety is dangerously subjective when Black children are involved” (p. 57). Stereotypes about Black femininity as dominant, overbearing, and unreasonably demanding of Black men fail to take into account the cultural legacy of slavery and how it shapes the present. When you hail from a legacy of slavery, being defiant is not necessarily a bad thing. But this is a double-edged sword; it is punished within our national narrative. The author highlights Claudette Colvin as an example. “Nine months before Rosa Parks made a similar decision that would launch the Montgomery bus boycott, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin protested the segregation of Montgomery buses by refusing to give up her seat to a White passenger. But most people do not know her name. Why is that? Well, she didn’t fit the profile of a ‘perfect’ protestor. Though Colvin was a member of the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she was so incensed by the demand to give up her seat that she shouted. She resisted with her body. And she was arrested. “In the days and weeks that followed, she was viewed as belligerent and ‘unreliable.’ Then it was discovered that she was pregnant and soon to become an unwed teen mother. Colvin was cast as a troublemaker and pushed out of one of the country’s most vivid civil rights memories, as well as the public and private discourses on the role of poor Black girls in the shaping of American democracy” (p. 22-23). Morris calls for school reform regarding policies that suspend students for coming to school wearing hairstyles historically associated with Blacks, like dreadlocks and afros, and the creation of objective decision-making tools for dress code violations. She has an appendix packed with information about Positive Behaviors Intervention Systems (PBIS) and restorative justice, as well as a Q&A for community members, educators, and students.

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