Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique W. Morris, is another book I read because my newly-formed book group was interested in it. As it turned out, there were only two of us who showed up to discuss it. Both white, both mothers, we had no experience nor much awareness of the pushout of black girls from public schools, although it might happen near us. The book focuses on a study done in the Bay Area of California, where it seems to be a bigger or at least a more noticeable problem.
I learned a lot, like about how black girls don’t feel like they will be protected in school—a good number of them, Morris says, “are greatly affected by the stigma of having to participate in identity politics that marginalize them or place them into polarizing categories: they are either “good” girls or “ghetto” girls who behave in ways that exacerbate stereotypes about Black femininity.”
Because I do live in an ivory tower (as do the others in my book group) and maybe because I also live in a bit of a fog, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that young black girls are routinely hyper-sexualized and also subjected to what Morris calls the “angry Black woman meme—a neck-rolling, finger-in-your-face, hands-on-hips posturing” (which conjures, for me, an image of Aretha Franklin dancing in the diner in The Blues Brothers movie).
Besides the Bay Area, Morris also talks about Chicago, especially the fact that “for nearly twenty-five years, there have been children attending Chicago public schools who have never experienced school recess.” This is terrible enough by itself, but one of the girls in Morris’ study points out that “If you’re born poverty-stricken, you ain’t got no recess. The only time to talk is during lunch or after school. Y’all ain’t got no sports. Y’all ain’t got no activities. You don’t have nothin’ to be proud of at your school. You ain’t paint nothing on the walls, or participate in nothing.”
There’s a section on “the politicization (and vilification) of thick, curly, and kinky hair,” which has actually permeated my small-town consciousness, because some of the local public schools have tried to outlaw the way a friend’s two small children wear their hair (they are mixed-race, but wear afros. The little boy is in third grade, I think; he came by my office selling potted mums to raise money for the school playground. The little girl isn’t even in school yet; she’s four).
Another way the book hit home is about dress codes. As the mother of two very tall high school students, I protested vigorously every tightening of the dress codes, which of course fell disproportionately on my daughter. One time I attended a school board meeting wearing almost all the clothing they were trying to outlaw in the high school except for a short skirt. Morris reports that “when it was deemed a more serious violation of the code, such as wearing tight-fitting garb or clothing that revealed cleavage, thighs, or other parts of their bodies, girls tended to perceive its implementation as subjective and arbitrary.” No kidding. And she points out how much harder this is on black girls who are still growing and don’t have a lot of money for clothes. As so many feminists have said (but not enough, apparently), “Instead of focusing on developing a climate in which boys are taught not to touch girls’ bodies, girls are sent home to change their clothes.”
What I didn’t know is that “a U.S. Department of Education study found that 43 percent of incarcerated youth who received remedial education services in detention did not return to school after being released, and that 16 percent of these youth enrolled in school after their confinement but then dropped out after only five months. Other studies have discovered similar trends, all leading to the conclusion that detention facilities can be, and often are, harmful places.” Morris elaborates on this, saying that “Most of the girls I spoke with had experienced school suspensions, expulsions, or both prior to their confinement in juvenile hall, but what they had not expected—what was in fact counterintuitive give the stated objective of the juvenile court school to prevent dropping out—was for their suspension, removal, and general exclusion from the classroom to increase in the juvenile court school.”
Morris makes suggestions. The three I remember (maybe because they seem most relevant to my role as a citizen of a small town with a large population of children in poverty but a very small black population) are that “to eliminate the pushout and criminalization of our girls, the first step is for all those investing their time and energy in the fight for racial justice…to stop measuring the impact of the criminal legal system simply by the numbers of people who are incarcerated.” Morris also says that students should be helping to “design remedies to dress code violations that do not include suspension or being sent home” and that schools should “provide ongoing examples and models of leadership” for black girls.
It’s an eye-opening book. The part that I will remember for a long time is about a little nonsense-sounding rhyme about a sister “on the corner, sellin’ fruit cocktail” which Morris points out, and I’m sure rightly, to be about selling herself. What kind of young girls have to worry about everything potentially being about sex? How long can we give our girls before they have to face adult problems now—five years? Six? Does their entrance into school have to spell the end of their childhoods?