by Erica C. Barnett
The story of the school-to-prison pipeline is a familiar one: Nationwide, young Black men in both public and private schools are more likely than their White counterparts to be disciplined, tracked into special education classes, and suspended for the same infractions, contributing to higher dropout rates and subsequent incarceration. Seattle is no exception to this nationwide phenomenon. In Seattle public schools, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as White boys to be referred to special education, and fall far behind their White counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores, to seventh-grade math proficiency, to graduation rates.
Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray announced a new initiative, called Our Best, that aims to close this achievement gap by doubling the number of Black male mentors, providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs that serve young Black men, and creating a new special advisor to the mayor on young Black male achievement. The program, which is modeled on former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, aims to increase the number of Black boys who graduate from high school, provide Black young men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful, well-paid employment,” and reduce the percentage of young Black men entering the criminal justice system.
Admirable as those goals may be, some advocates wonder: What about the girls? Young Black women face unique challenges that aren’t shared by young Black men, including pregnancy (four in 10 Black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason), lack of economic opportunity (the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts), and abuse (girls are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and harassment.) Black girls are also far more likely than Black boys to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single Black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for Black men and $41,500 for single White women.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University, was one of the first prominent African-American writers to ring the alarm bell about My Brother’s Keeper back in 2014 when she wrote a New York Times op/ed titled “The Girls Obama Forgot: My Brother’s Keeper Ignores Young Black Women.” The following year Crenshaw and the AAPF published a report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” which chronicled the “hidden toll of race on Black girls,” including the astonishing fact that Black girls are six times as likely as White girls to be suspended from school for the same infractions—a gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between Black and White boys.
I sat down with Crenshaw in Seattle earlier this summer.
South Seattle Emerald: Mayor Ed Murray has argued, essentially, that if the city can address the achievement gap for young Black men, the benefits will accrue to all Black students, including young women, without the need for a separate program addressing young women’s specific needs. Specifically, part of the argument is that when boys end up in jail, it destabilizes the African-American family structure and forces women to take on all the responsibilities in a family, including earning a living and taking care of kids and other family members. What do you think of the argument that addressing Black boys’ issues will ultimately help address Black girls’ problems as well?
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw: Where do I start? Trickle-down social justice doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did. If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet. That ship has sailed. It sailed a long time ago. What’s most important is to recognize the ways that boys and girls who are from socially marginalized groups are marginalized by a variety of factors.
Gender correction is not at the source of the solutions for African-American people or for any people. These frameworks are effectively foregrounding a framework that appeared in the 1960s, and even at that time it wasn’t really accurate to what was happening. This is [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan effectively warmed over and reproduced over 50 years later. [Moynihan, who served as assistant labor secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote a now-infamous 1964 report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” that argued for racial self-help and the restoration of the traditional family as the solution to racial economic inequality]. The Moynihan thesis was basically that equality would always outpace what African-Americans were able to expect as long as their family structure was non-normative. To think that the source of inequality is incomplete socialization to gender norms is to ignore a whole variety of structural and historical dynamics that impact both boys and girls, men and women.
So what about the job market? What about the under-resourcing of public schools? What about stereotypes about men and women, boys and girls? What about suspension and punishment that happens inside of schools and outside of schools? What about geographic isolation and segregation? All of these are structural, institutional, historical factors that together contribute to the wide variety of inequalities that African-Americans face? To essentially say that the problem is located in the individual, as opposed to the structure in which the individuals live, is to effectively let off the hook an entire history of subordination and do so by essentially saying that, ‘the inequality rests in you, Black boy,’ rather than in the society that constructs the situations in which people live.
SSE: If you were creating a program within a school system to address those structural inequalities more directly, what would it look like?
KWC: I think there should be targeted programs for socially marginal and struggling students, and those students come across all genders. It’s not just one gender that’s struggling. I think the measurement of what counts as a crisis is also a problem, because the conversation up ‘til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys.
We’ve heard all about the school-to-prison pipeline, the disproportionate suspension rates, and all that, but if you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys. Basically, it’s the way that we frame social problems that is the problem. Assuming that the girls are doing okay, or ‘the girls can wait,’ is basically assuming that ‘whatever is going on with you is basically irrelevant; the racial disparity between you and White girls is something that isn’t the primary point of concern.’ What we know is that the long-term consequences of being pushed out of school for girls are in some ways even more consequential over the long term, because the jobs available for girls without a high school diploma actually pay less than the jobs that are available for boys without a [high school] diploma. If you add to that the fact that the majority of Black children will, at some point in their lives, rely either wholly or in part on the income of their mothers—to ignore that, to ignore those real family formations [in exchange] for the ones that we fantasize about, is basically to say, ‘All of you can wait until we get the ideal family formation that we want.’
That kind of framing of families is almost only expressed with respect to racialized communities. Outside of that, we have a completely new idea about what counts as a family. We have a completely new idea about gender roles. But when it comes to remediation—treating Black folks as sort of in need of gender repair—we’re back to old ideas about that.
SSE: A lot of what I’ve heard from supporters of these kinds of programs is that Black women are strong; they can provide for themselves; they’re the rock for their families.
KWC: So what’s that saying? Black men and boys are weak? I think that’s the question that should get asked. Unfortunately, we have accepted this idea that there’s something uniquely vulnerable about the boy child, rather than saying, ‘okay, this is the way the entire system impacts boys and here’s the way it impacts girls.’ Sometimes they’re impacted the same, particularly relative to their White counterparts, but sometimes there are differences, too. There are a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by some of these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy.
SSE: For example?
KWC: Harassment that happens in school. The way that Black girls are often framed as unruly because of a stereotype about both Black people and girls, and that comes together and it makes it more likely that Black girls will be seen as acting out, having attitude. Obviously, the consequences of single parenting are greater for girls than they are for boys. Sexual abuse is more common for girls than it is for boys. So all this stuff gets sort of swept under the rug by saying, ‘Okay, you, girl, can wait so we can create Prince Charming for you.’ We need boys and girls who actualize their best capacity. We need to create opportunities for both of them and not create this fantasy where the girls can wait until the knight in shining armor comes along. Some of them don’t want a knight.
And then you add to that: How can we even be thinking about his when we’re starting to understand that gender is fluid? It’s not just two! So how’s that work? And where are the folks who are advocating for gender diversity when it comes to these issues? Where is the gay community? It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?
Seattle is about to choose a new mayor from among two White women. Although neither of the two candidates, Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan, have expressed an opinion about Our Best specifically, both have had what Crenshaw would call “non-normative” family experiences—Moon as a single mom and Durkan as the mother of two boys with her partner, who is a woman. For now, the city’s focus will remain on young Black men, whose mass incarceration, according to Office of Economic Director Brian Surrat, has “been very destabilizing to the African American family.” Surrat acknowledges that this “sounds like a very conservative argument,” and says the city does “need to have a different set of initiatives and investments targeting young Black women and Latinas, as well as the Southeast Asian community.”
However, the city has no specific plans for such an initiative, nor any details about what it might look like. For now, the city has decided that Our Best is good enough.
Erica C. Barnett is a longtime Seattle journalist who covers city politics and policy as a freelance journalist for various print and online publications and at her blog, The C Is for Crank. Previously, she was a co-founder of PubliCola, the local politics blog, a staff writer and news editor at the Stranger, a reporter for Seattle Weekly, and news editor at the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas.