Late last week, President Obama announced that the White House is launching a $200 million, five-year initiative focused on improving the opportunities of black and Latino boys and young men. For at least five years, advocates who work within civil rights and racial justice non-profit organizations have known that strategies that address the needs of boys and men of color—from fighting stop-and-frisk in New York City, to closing the educational achievement gap in California—are a hot ticket. A 2006 New York Times front-page article headlined “Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn” highlighted the work of academics who found that black men, in particular, were falling behind economically, and “ignited a conversation” at the Open Society Foundation about investing specifically in them. The approach spread, and other funders ramped up investment in this area. For the president’s initiative, major philanthropic foundations including Ford, Open Society and Kellogg will be footing the bill with help from business leaders (there are no public funds dedicated to the project).
Now that the concept has moved from the non-profit world to presidential policy, it’s impossible to keep ignoring the obvious question: where do girls and young women fit in? If streets corners, classrooms, workplaces and court systems are inhospitable to and dangerous for black and Latino boys and men, how do they affect the girls and women who are often right by their sides? After all, boys and men don’t exist in a vacuum.
In fact, black and Latina girls and women also struggle to succeed in school, avoid the criminal justice system, and find and keep good jobs. Nearly 40 percent of black and Latina girls fail to graduate high school on time. Black girls experience sexual violence at rates higher than their white and Latina counterparts, and black women are murdered by men at more than two and a half times the rate of white women. Of those black women killed by men in 2011, nearly half were intimate partners of the offenders. This is perhaps not the kind of violence Obama’s initiative is drawing attention to, but it’s violence just the same.
In recent years, researcher Monique Morris has been trying to make sure girls—especially black girls—are included in conversations about racial disparities in education and the criminal justice system. Black girls make up just over a third of girls in juvenile detention, according to her 2012 paper titled “Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” She reports that “among the nation’s 10 highest suspending districts, Black girls with one or more disability experienced the highest suspension rate of all girls.” Disproportionate discipline in and removal from classrooms often means an increased chance of contact with police, the courts and jail.
Black girls are often seen as threatening or disruptive in the classroom just as their male counterparts are, but for different reasons. Teachers and administrators clash with and discipline girls they perceive to be loud, defiant and unladylike, according to Morris. “When Black girls do engage in acts that are deemed ‘ghetto’ or a deviation from the social norms that define female behavior according to a narrow, White middle-class definition of femininity, they are deemed nonconformative and thereby subject to criminalizing responses,” Morris writes. She offers the example of two 6-year-old black girls—one in Georgia, the other in Florida—who were handcuffed and led away by police after throwing tantrums in their classrooms. We’re used to discussing how black and Latino boys are perceived as a threat to authority figures. Less often explored is the implicit bias faced by black and Latina girls.