Black Girls Matter

The following is excerpted from the latest issue of Ms. To read the entire article, get a print or digital subscription today!

In 2012, 6-year-old Salecia Johnson was arrested and handcuffed in a Georgia school for having a temper tantrum. In 2007, 16-year-old Pleajhai Mervin was arrested after she dropped cake on the floor in her California school and failed to clean it up to a school security officer’s satisfaction.

Tanisha Denard was arrested at her Los Angeles public high school for being tardy and wound up in solitary confinement. And last year, after 12-year-old Mikia Hutchings scribbled “hi” on a locker room wall at her Georgia middle school, she faced suspension and criminal charges for the childhood prank.

All four girls were Black.

These girls, and millions of their sisters, might well have been the students envisioned by President Obama when he spoke about the need “to tell every child in every neighborhood your life matters and we are committed to improving your life chances, as committed as we are to working on behalf of our own kids.” But girls such as Mikia, Pleajhai, Salecia and Tanisha, however, were unfortunately not the youth that President Obama had in mind when he gathered top civil rights leaders, captains of industry and notable celebrities to join forces to lift up the life chances of the nation’s disadvantaged youth in February of 2014.

The initiative Obama launched—My Brother’s Keeper (MBK)—is a $300 million public/private partnership designed to improve life outcomes only for men and boys of color. It targets resources and attention to youth at risk, but the glaring absence of girls suggests that they are not seen as “youth” or “at risk.”

Mikia, Pleajhai, Salecia and Tanisha represent millions of girls of color who are disproportionately disciplined in school. Black girls are six times more likely than their white female counterparts to be suspended, and suspension can lead to expulsion, placing these girls at high risk of low-wage work and unemployment, homelessness and incarceration. Like their male counterparts, they mature into adulthood facing increased odds of being marginalized in the workforce, subject to high rates of interpersonal violence and facing lowered health outcomes—some estimates suggest people of color experience health outcomes 30 to 40 percent poorer than white Americans.

While the president has personally emphasized the need to show Black boys that he cares about them, and the first lady has declared that “Black girls rock,” the lack of political commitment to address the obstacles that confront women and girls of color seems to arise from a belief that their brothers face such deeply disturbing barriers that women and girls must wait. The case for such trickle-down justice is often grounded in the narrow claim that the data show men and boys of color to be exceptionally disadvantaged—an argument that Georgetown law professor Paul Butler calls “Black male exceptionalism.”

The mantra is repeated so often that leaders, stakeholders and even excluded women have been led to believe that the exclusion of girls and women is not only justified but necessary. The actual data, however, suggest otherwise.

A study recently released by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies—“Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected”—reveals that while Black girls face some of the same challenges that destroy the life chances of their brothers, they also face many that are different.

For example, when it comes to disciplinary measures such as suspension and expulsion, Black girls face a higher level of racial disparity than their male counterparts. In Boston, for instance, Black girls were 12 times more likely to be suspended than white girls, while Black boys were only 7.4 times more likely to be suspended than their white male counterparts. In New York, Black girls were 53 times more likely to be expelled than white girls, while Black boys were expelled at a rate 10 times higher than white boys.

The nation needs a gender and racial-justice policy approach that embraces the concerns of boys and girls, men and women, to ensure that the structural factors affecting all people of color are highlighted and addressed. It is impossible to forward racial justice without also centering gender equity and to forward gender justice without centering racial equity.



Kimberlé Crenshaw is executive director and cofounder of the African American Policy Forum. A law professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School, she is a leading authority in civil rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race and the law. She is coeditor of Critical Race Theory: Key Documents That Shaped the Movement.