Why The Discipline Disparity Affects Black Women

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School may be out for the summer, but the sting of the racial disparity in discipline in this country still lingers. And for some, it never goes away.

A Black girl enrolled in middle school or high school is six times more likely to be suspended for disciplinary reasons than her white female classmate, according to a recent study from the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, led by renowned legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw.

What is the long term effect of such harsh reprimands?

Clearly, schools need some level of discipline for students to thrive and learn. Disruption in the classroom –in the most severe cases, violence—robs everyone of time to learn and feel safe.

A study released in 2014 by the U.S. Department Of Education and the U.S. Department Of Justice indicated that victimization of students by other students increased over a two-year period among students aged 12-18.

Clearly, students who assault other students should be removed from the schoolroom and not allowed to inflict trauma on their classmates.

But the Black girls who were suspended or expelled, as recounted in the recent African American Policy Forum report, did not assault their fellow classmates.  Rather, the misdeeds that the girls were charged with often fell into trivial categories bordering on the absurd.

For example, a 12-year-old girl was threatened with expulsion and criminal charges for simply writing the word “hi” on a locker room wall. In Detroit, a high school honors student was suspended for a year for simply bringing a pocketknife to a football game.

The infliction of harsh discipline in schools derails individuals from achieving opportunities.

There is a recognized “school to prison pipeline” in which disciplinary practices push school children out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system.

We give our needed attention to double disciplinary standards experienced by Black boys and young men, but Black girls and young women have been overlooked. This is despite that fact that Black girls are punished at disproportionately higher rates than Black boys are.

According to the African American Policy Forum/Columbia report, Black boys were suspended three times more than white boys, while Black girls in comparison with white females classmates were suspended at twice that rate.

Black girls suffering relatively greater inequities in school discipline than either Black boys or white girls is an example of “intersectionality.”  Intersectionality is used to critique inequities and work toward social justice—through examination of the experiences of those holding two marginalized identities, such as Black girls and women.

As an approach it is gaining greater recognition. For example, a recently released study explores such adolescent Black girls’ development of racial identity, and another study delves deeply into the combined effects of race and gender on school discipline.

And according to the recently published edited volume, Black Girls and Adolescents: Facing the Challenges, African-American girls represent the fastest growing portion of the juvenile justice system.

Why should we be concerned about these trends? Because incarceration wrecks lives.

As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, convicted felons – who are disproportionately African-American – are legally discriminated against in gaining employment, securing housing. pursuing educational opportunities, and are barred from voting –from electing those who create laws.

Overly harsh discipline funnels young Black women toward the correctional system, plucking them off constructive paths toward meaningful and secure lives.

We know from research that Black women lag almost every demographic group in the U.S. when it comes to gaining assets –money and resources available for major purchases and investments.

This gendered racial asset gap puts Black women at a grave disadvantage for leading “the good life” – having enough money for a decent home, education, and investments that ensure stability and security for future generations.

There are many documented factors for this asset gap, including historically-based discrimination in societal institutions such as the labor market and education, and wage discrimination that particularly hurts Black women.

But when does it start? Based on recent research, it appears for many that it starts at the “school to prison” pipeline. As a major societal institution, school represents an important and early point of intervention.

We can chip away at discriminatory practices that imperil Black girls and women by raising awareness of the “implicit bias”  that exists in all societal institutions.

In her recent study on race, gender and school discipline, Janel A. George writes, ”Our deeply held and often unconscious beliefs, stereotypes, and biases are too rarely brought to the surface, examined and expunged.”

The power of implicit bias has been popularized in many corporate diversity and inclusion programs. At times, the concept is over-simplified and sanitized, barely skimming the surface of deeper issues by implying that everyone has biases so everyone (regardless of social identity group), is equally culpable and nobody needs to feel guilty.

On the other hand, there is a powerful program that emphasizes “re-training” police personnel to resist implicit bias. Such training has received high marks from social critics, and should be used for school teachers, as well.

The training uses real-life scenarios for police personnel to make fast decisions, such as how to react to potentially suspicious behavior, whether to confront a potential felon, and what level of force to use in various situations.

Perhaps the officers in McKinney, Texas could have used such training and spared the 14-year-old Black girl humiliation and violent treatment earlier this month.

Such retraining for teachers so that they act and react fairly and equitably to all children, will give our nation’s children a fair chance to thrive, particularly Black girls.  The hope is that such a reversal of pervasive  mistreatment will remove a key barrier for black women striving to build secure, sustainable lives for themselves and their families.

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Katherine Giscombe is a social scientist working on issues of women of color for more than 15 years. She holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan and is a participant in The OpEd Project’s Greenhouse at the Center for Global Policy Solutions.