Challenges Faced by African-American Girls Deserve Equal Attention

For some time, the National Organization for Women has been advocating that there needs to be a parallel effort to the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative which focuses entirely on helping Black boys and men. The picture of African-American girls detailed at a Congressional briefing and in a new report is so compelling that anyone can agree that initiatives to increase resources for boys of color are inadequate and unfair. Girls of color – as much as, if not more so – are desperately in need of more effective and unbiased educational experiences, protection from violence and other support services to help them succeed.

As one example: Maia, an African-American girl living in North Lawndale, Chicago, was 14 at the time. While walking to school one morning she was taken at gunpoint by ten boys just one block from school. She was raped repeatedly. The school was unequipped to help her with a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and she eventually dropped out and became a teen mom. This was only one of several tragic stories presented by Scheherazade Tillet, Co-Founder and Executive Director of A Long Walk Home, Inc., at the Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls Congressional briefing earlier in February.

African-American girls face some of the toughest challenges imaginable. According to a study titled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls, prepared by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than their white female peers, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are the most vulnerable to sex trafficking in America.

More than one-third of Black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of African-American high school seniors scored below the National Assessment of education Progress’s Basic achievement level in mathematics and 39 percent scored below the Basic achievement in reading. That same year, African-American girls had the lowest average SAT scores of female students.

Disproportionate Disciplinary Action in Schools: School-aged Black girls are more likely than all their female counterparts and many boys to be suspended, particularly for minor and subjective offenses. The rate at which African-American girls are suspended is the fastest growing suspension rate of any group of students, male or female.

Tragically, the source of much of this discipline is racial and gender stereotyping that label African-American girls as confrontational and provocative. Those Black girls who are outspoken in the classroom are disciplined at higher rates than other girls. Additionally, African-American girls are more likely to be cited for dress code violations than other female students. They are being punished for not conforming to societal norms of how African-American girls “should” look, dress, and behave. Often times, they are subjected to unfair rules prohibiting them from wearing their natural hair, an afro, braids, or dreadlocks. Essentially, they are being punished for who they are.

The evidence is clear: it is a dangerous assumption that African-American girls are doing just fine. We see programs like MBK targeted specifically at boys of color, completing ignoring the immense disadvantages of African-American girls and women. The major problem with this line of thinking is that Black girls are being left out of the conversation. People are not acknowledging the challenges these girls and young women face on a day-to-day basis and such exclusion from the public discussion prevents society from addressing an important responsibility.

Time for Action: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has the potential to promote educational opportunity and improve outcomes for African-American girls. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., along with the National Women’s Law Center outlined components that must be included in the ESEA Recommendation. The Reauthorization should include stronger oversight and stricter compliance with Title IV, Title VI, and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Schools must collect data regarding performance among sub-groups of students and cross-tabulate these data by gender so we can focus in on the groups that need help.

States must be held accountable for equitable distribution of resources to ensure all students have access to STEM courses, qualified teachers, and technology. Already we hear that House Republicans are proposing huge cuts in financial aid to large school districts where there are significant numbers of students of color.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was among the speakers at the briefing. She spoke of the Teach Safe Relationships Act (S. 355), a bill introduced into the Senate by Sen. Timothy Kaine (D-VA) which would include safe relationship behavior training and education aimed at preventing domestic violence and sexual violence. This bill is still in committee but NOW encourages you to contact your Senators and support this important piece of legislation!

And, do what you can to advocate for equal attention and resources for African-American girls. A “My Sister’s Keeper” initiative equal to that promoted for boys of color by the administration and business leaders is essential. This is to not forget to mention that a parallel effort for girls and young women of color utilizing public funds would assure that these initiatives are compliant with Title IX, the civil rights law which requires gender equity in education.

More information:

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity

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