Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools
reviewed by Mary Alfred & Delores Rice - February 27, 2017
This review is co-written by two African American women. Alfred is a grandmother of a five-year-old and Rice is the mother of a two-year-old, both of these children are African American girls. We discussed the pain we felt in our hearts as we read about the physical abuse and mistreatment of young Black girls in the opening pages of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique A. Morris. These incidences are not new to us. We continue to follow the disparate treatment of African American women in our research and teachings. This includes the recent incidences of violence so graphically portrayed in the mass media.
Despite our familiarity with the criminalization of Black women, we were emotionally unprepared for the images that jump out of the authors vivid description of young girls negative experiences with schooling. Take for example the story of two young girls being handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a police vehicle for having temper tantrums. We both believe we are positively influencing our girls to become productive members of society. We also hope that all members of the community will treat these girls equitably and fairly. Unfortunately, the narratives in this book remind us that our efforts alone may not protect them from the negative experiences of being Black and female that push many unfortunate children into the school-to-prison pipeline.
There are daily reminders that the visible melanin in their skin will cause society to treat these Black youth differently. Pushout reminds us that we can never forget how society treats Black people in different ways because of their skin color, gender, and socioeconomic status. We recall recent cases in the media, like the affluenza DUI case (Klass & Valiente, 2015), where privileged treatment is given simply because of whiteness and socioeconomic status. The narratives in this book demonstrate the unequal treatment within systems that privilege whites and fail Black females across age groups. However, we believe each of us has the ability to exercise agency. We can also take proactive measures to minimize the individual risks that place girls in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Morris presents compelling stories to show how zero tolerance policies and teacher assessment of student behavior as being defiant or disrespectful has pushed many girls out of the school system. The volume presents other behaviors and conditions that have resulted in the criminalization of Black girls, including truancy, bullying, learning disabilities, and mental health issues. These factors are compounded by mental and physical abuse in spaces that are normally labeled as being safe for womens development. This includes the family home or being in the company of loved ones. Black girls remain vulnerable to experiences that contribute to behaviors that lead to their criminalization. According to Morris, the move to push Black girls into the school-to-prison pipeline is a crisis of great magnitude. It is a problem that severely cripples the possibility of girls developing into successful womanhood, earning an education, and ultimately living their lives.
From her interviews with girls who are confined to juvenile detention facilities, Morris describes the realities of their lives over four chapters. She includes recommendations for improvement in the final chapter. In the first chapter, "Struggling to Survive," the author outlines the conditions girls endure daily as they struggle to define their identities through characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class status. Efforts to survive include sex work in the case of an eleven-year-old to alleviate her poverty. Other young people take on a position of defiance as a means of self-protection from denigration and marginalization. It also helps them maintain their power to be heard. These youth also challenge unfair and inequitable treatment from authority figures and attempt to claim their self-defined identities.
In Chapter Two, A Blues for Black Girls When Attitude is Enuf, Morris presents compelling data showing Black girls are disproportionately represented as victims of school discipline, which is often the start of their journey into criminalization. Using this data, the author shows the negative life-altering impact of these policies. Take for example the arrests of the two young girls who were handcuffed for throwing temper tantrums mentioned earlier in this review. The narratives reveal youth behaviors like asking questions, advocating for themselves, falling asleep in class, wearing natural hair, dressing in revealing attire, and engaging in various kinds of unruly behavior. These incidents are deemed threats to safety, especially when they involve Black students.
In Chapter Three, Jezebel in the Classrooms, Morris discusses issues of sexual and gender identity as they shape behaviors that often criminalize Black girls. This negative behavior is the result of school policies, educational practices, or the criminal justice system. For example, those who are victims of sex trafficking often leave school due to encouragement from boyfriends or pimps. Alternatively, they are pulled out of the traditional educational system to reside in detention centers with instructional programs that are below standard. We believe that the challenges of educating girls on the margin (e.g., those involved in the sex industry) and the solution to these issues must be part of the national education agenda.
Chapter Four continues to paint a negative portrait of the juvenile justice education system. This institution miserably fails students who deserve an exciting and encouraging learning experience to assist them in rightfully claiming their lives as productive citizens. However, the instructional design, learning environments, negative student-faculty interactions, and system policies keep pushing out Black girls. This keeps them from reclaiming their lives through education. There is almost unanimous agreement that education is the gateway to a better future. However, the futures of these students appear discouraging unless systemic interventions occur at all levels of the educational system. From this, Morris provides recommendations to help Black girls caught in the juvenile justice reclaim their lives through systems of support in Chapter Five.
Morris makes a strong case that schools contribute to the criminalization of Black girls for non-violent behavior through her use of interviews and case narratives. As we reflect on the narratives presented in the book, we are saddened at the lives of young girls growing up in homes, schools, and communities where few supports are available as they develop from childhood to adulthood. Support systems that have historically been central to African American communities (e.g., Black churches, immediate and extended families, agencies advocating for youth, people in the neighborhood, etc.) appear to be absent in the lives of these young girls. Over time, youth bonds with these supports have been weakened and feelings of trust in them have been derailed.
In the first four chapters in the book, we walk away with the notion that education has failed this population of young girls. We then ask the following question: is education the problem and the solution? We agree it is a part of a problem and part of a solution that must be cast within a much wider sphere and viewed from a systemic perspective. The education system is pivotal in providing a learning environment that positively influences the lives of students. However, as most educators have expressed, real education begins with the family. Perhaps we need to start interventions at the family unit level, develop the capacities of adult caregivers, and provide resources so these guardians can respond to childrens developmental needs in more positive ways. With early and sustainable interventions, we believe that youth of all ages would be better prepared to manage the expectations of schooling, resulting in a more positive experience. Morris explains that, [w]e can all get behind a fair and effective education strategy that provides a quality education for every young person (p. 9). We agree with this statement and the idea that we need to develop young black girls to live within structures that have their own unique definitions of appropriate behavior.
One critique of Pushout is that the girls who are described do not appear to be held accountable for their school behavior. The burden for their misbehavior is placed exclusively on the external environment. Civil society is made of systems with defined structures and policies that guide the behavior of its membership. For example, when Morris attempts to correlate acceptable social norms to a white middle-class definition of femininity, we find it perplexing. Is this to say that when Black girls adhere to expectations of a given structure, they are emulating white values and adhering to white femininity? From this, is Black femininity counter to prescribed norms and expectations within this system? Perhaps we misunderstand the underlying premise. Morris also notes that,
the multiple ways in which racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequity converge to marginalize Black girls in their learning environmentsrelegating many to an inferior quality of education because they are perceived as being defiant, delinquent, aggressive, too sexy, too proud, and too loud to be treated with dignity in their schools. (p. 13)
This may be true. Unfortunately, we live in a world where these types of perceptions are real. One is normally perceived before one is fully realized by another person. As professional adults, we spend time managing perceptions just to earn a seat at the table to be visible and contribute to public discourse. In this case, perceptions are important. We would serve our Black girls better by preparing them to take their rightful place in society, an environment where initial perception helps determine access and opportunity. After all, this is the world where we live.
Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique A. Morris, is a great book that provokes deep thought. It creates space for discussion about the multiple systems that intersect to inform the lives of African American girls. The volume also measures what can be taken from each of these systems to help young women have more positive experiences as they develop into adults. It is a useful book for many disciplines like education administration, teacher education, urban education, criminal justice, psychology, or sociology, to name just a few.
Klass, C., & Valiente, A. (2015, December 31). 'Affluenza' DUI case: What happened [the] night of the accident that left 4 people dead. ABC News Go. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/affluenza-dui-case-happened-night-accident-left-people/story?id=34481444