Since the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released its 2016 The Condition of Education report, education enrollment numbers by race and gender have been thrust back into the media. Several major news outlets have recently reported on the fact that black women are statistically among the most represented groups in college enrollment. Yet, college enrollment statistics have the power to mask some very real problems that still exist in terms of how our schools serve black girls.
Lately, I’ve read multiple articles that both laud the educational achievements and highlight the myriad other struggles black women still face. Most of the points presented focus on economic indicators: the pay disparity between black women with degrees and their white counterparts, as well as the lack of black women in corporate leadership roles. I’m glad writers are digging past the good news and reminding readers there is still a long way to go. But we need to widen the conversation further and center it on the people who are growing up to become black women: black girls, whose struggles in the current education system have become a crisis.
According to federal data, “Black girls are 8% of enrolled students, but 14% of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. Girls of other races did not disproportionately receive one or more out-of-school suspensions.” Black girls in the juvenile justice system receive harsher sentences than white girls do, and they represent the fastest-growing population in that system. We can only assume these realities will negatively affect the representation of black women in higher education in the future.
Four education scholars recently unpacked the racial bias that leads to the black girl pushout in schools—and the many ways it differs from that of black boys. Educators need to hear the nuances these scholars provide: To group black girls and black boys together when talking about the racism they face in school, without considering gender, does a disservice to both groups. As Shaun R. Harper, executive director and founder of the Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, notes, “[Girls] really are pushed out of schools in some uniquely gendered ways that haven’t been fully considered.”
We should be talking about the achievements of black women in college and the rate at which black girls are being pushed out of K-12 schools. Why? It’s not simply because both issues are related to education, but because black girls still remain mostly invisible in our discipline conversations. More often than not, our discussions around school discipline center on black boys and their unique struggles. Many of the achievement and disciplinary intervention programs initiated in the last decade focus exclusively on black males, including the most recognized one, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
Taking college enrollment stats at face value means putting educators at risk of assuming that things are OK for black girls. With the school-to-prison pipeline starting as early as preschool, we have to look at the entire picture or risk making the false assumption that black girls don’t need our consideration or specialized supports.
I would be remiss to not say there are a lot of fires to put out when it comes to students of color in education. But as we celebrate the good news that black women are relatively well represented in higher education, I urge you to become galvanized with a new sense of urgency around the issues black girls experience in the education system.
Williams is the new media associate for Teaching Tolerance.