Winter 2021

Confronting the Whiteness in Black Girls’ Criminalization

Our schools criminalize Black children. We don't just need lessons acknowledging racism. We need to create an antiracist education system.

by Christina Cavener

April 2005, police arrested a five-year-old Black girl in St. Petersburg, Florida for tearing papers off a bulletin board, climbing on a table, and hitting an assistant principal (Dakss). Three officers bent the child over a table, forcibly handcuffed her, and took her to the police station. The police only released her when the prosecutors informed them that they would not “bring charges against a five-year-old” (Dakss).

April 2012, police arrested a six-year-old Black girl in Milledgeville, Georgia. Labeled as an “unruly juvenile” for throwing a tantrum, Salecia Johnson was handcuffed and taken to the police station (Campbell). The school pressed charges against Johnson for “simple battery of a schoolteachers and criminal damage to property” (Campbell). At only six-years-old, Johnson was deemed capable of criminal behavior, and formally recorded in the justice system as a criminal.

January 2020, a 10-year-old Black girl was arrested at school in Honolulu, Hawaii over a drawing connected to a disagreement with other children (Selva et al.). Police arrived, used excessive force, and took her to the police station. She was arrested in front of the staff and other students. The mother was called to the school but not allowed to see her daughter, denying her right to protection as a minor.

These three cases, spread out over fifteen years, merely scratch the surface of a longstanding problem in American education: the criminalization of Black girls. They are only a few of a dizzying number of cases in which Black girls are deemed as “unruly” and accused of criminal behavior as early as five years old. Black girls are subject to criminalization in all spaces. Not only are they harassed in stores and on the streets, but they are criminalized by educational institutions. Public schools are institutions of the state that are intended to teach and equip children with the knowledge and skills they need to develop, grow, and eventually succeed beyond childhood. Rather than preparing Black girls to succeed in their future endeavors, schools are over-policing Black girls while simultaneously neglecting their needs (Wun, “Against Captivity” 172). Public schools are in crisis and the fierce determination to suppress critical race theory (CRT) is a scapegoat for whites to avoid being implicated in racial injustice, and a tactic to maintain post-Brown segregation and white institutional control.

White supremacists made criminalization of Black children a centerpiece of school segregation efforts following the 1954 Brown ruling that mandated integration. In many respects, today’s more inclusive and accurate curricula around race and racism reflect efforts of Black parents, communities, and activists to provide a more just education for young people. Image via the Institute for Policy Studies.

Historical Roots of Black Girls’ Criminalization

The criminalization of Black girls is nothing new; it has deep historical roots grounded in whiteness. From their first glimpse of African women’s bodies, colonizers have perceived African women’s bodies as deviations from white femininity (Morgan 41-42). African women were described to have sagging breasts and uncontrollable lusts (41). Colonizers distinguished between the “chaste maternal” English women versus the “inscrutable and sexually polymorphous” African women (40). They were immediately constructed as masculinized sexual objects who should be exploited for enslavement. The slave trade relied upon the racialized and gendered object of Black women’s “beastly” and “savage” body as inherently deviant.  

After emancipation, the South continued their white supremacist strategies to criminalize and enslave Black women through convict camps and chain gangs. Determined to maintain the Southern ideology of slavery, Black women were forced to labor on county roads under the direct control and supervision of county authorities (Haley 6). Beginning in 1908, they were forced to work for white families before their prison time was up (6). This system was a form of gendered and racialized social control that established a “public-private partnership whereby both state employees and ordinary women became wardens, controlling the social lives, labors, and futures of imprisoned African American women” (6). White women were often their overseers, enforcing the state surveillance of Black women.

From 1910 until the 70s, about six million Black people moved away from the South and into Northern cities as refugees to escape the white backlash of terrorism against their freedom—The Great Migration. It was during this timeframe from 1899 to 1945 that the juvenile justice system (JJS) was formed (Agyepong 1). Tera Eva Agyepong conducted a case study of Black children in Chicago that suggests the JJS was a key factor in “facilitating a process of racialized criminalization, instituting a punitive turn long before the backlash against the Civil Rights movement and War on Drugs” (3). The supposed rehabilitative purpose of juvenile justice did not arise with the intent to protect Black children’s innocence; it was meant to rehabilitate white children. Perceived as inherently deviant, Black children were excluded from “saving” and Black girls were considered the most violent (4). Before making their first steps into the JJS, they were racialized and gendered as dangerous delinquents (4-5). As early as 1899, Black girls were deemed criminal, excluded from protection, and treated as adults in the JJS. 

During the 1980s, the get tough on crime and the war on drugs targeted people of color. Getting tough on crime was about “unfounding rehabilitation,” mandatory minimums, and other harsh forms of punishment (McCorkel 23). To explore its effects on women of color, Jill McCorkel conducted interviews during the early 2000s with incarcerated women who were forced to participate in a drug treatment program that aimed to “break” women by destabilizing their identities (80). McCorkel points out that “this program was born in the same historical moment that poor, African American women were vilified by politicians and media outlets as ‘crack whores’ and ‘welfare queens’” (80-81). The stereotypes of Black women—spread by white politicians and the media—were used to justify their incarceration. By criminalizing people of color and the poor with false narratives, politicians simultaneously shamed poverty and made prison profitable (81). They claimed that Black female offenders are diseased bad girls (81). According to the prison guards and administration, incarcerated Black women are angry and impervious to the effects of incarceration (77). Unlike white women who simply got “caught up” in men’s criminal activities, Black women were treated as the “real criminals” who were “immoral” and “unruly” (77-78). The racially charged stereotypes of bad unruly Black women and the get tough on crime movement drove their mass incarceration. 

The Racism of Teachers and Administrators

School officials’ enforcement of discipline disproportionately targets Black students. Welch and Payne found that schools with a larger percentage of Black students are more likely to use harsh discipline and enforce zero tolerance policies (25). The higher the number of Black students, the harsher the discipline becomes: more office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions (25). Additionally, Lindsay and Hart discovered that exposure to same-race teachers lowers office referrals for willful defiance across all ages, suggesting that teacher’s lack of cultural competence and the exercise of discretion play a significant role in driving punitive discipline (485).   

Teachers who cling to a colorblind ideology largely contribute to racist disciplinary outcomes. Although appearing harmless at face value, colorblindness dismisses both the experiences of people of color and the concrete impacts of structural racism. More than one study found that white teachers who are ignorant to their white privilege often perpetuate a colorblindness that harms Black students (Henfield and Washington 153; Bryan 326). According to Henfield and Washington’s interviews with white teachers, they said that students would consistently play the “race card” (154). The white teachers supposed that because their actions were “colorblind” and therefore not about students’ race, their enforcement of discipline cannot be “characterized as racist or racially biased” (154). The white teachers’ denial of their white privilege and their part in perpetuating racism had a detrimental impact on Black students (158). In Bryan’s observations of white teachers who held onto colorblindness, he discovered a disproportionate targeting of Black students for minor and subjective infractions (326). White teachers’ unexamined colorblindness and privilege combined with the overreliance of exclusionary discipline practices create a structurally oppressive system for Black children.

Over the last year, white conservatives have worked to rid schools of accurate lessons about America’s racist history and culture, deeming anything critical of white supremacy “CRT.” Image via NBC.

School officials’ and their unchecked biases have material consequences for Black girls (Henfield and Washington 158; Bryan 341). Researchers found that when teachers are unaware of their own stereotypes and biases against Black girls, they were more likely to punish them when they did not conform to white femininity (Annamma et al. 233; Taylor-Thompson 1138-1139). Another study demonstrated that if Black girls were not assimilating to white female norms (passive, docile, submissive, etc.), schools’ punishments became increasingly harsh (Stevens et al. 738). Black girls are five and a half times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls (Vafa et al. 9). According to Connie Wun, there are other less severe consequences that occur for minor infractions like chewing gum or looking like they are talking (“Against Captivity” 183; “Unaccounted Foundations” 748). These mostly go undocumented but the girls still experience being alienated or excluded—sent out of class, yelled at, or humiliated (“Against Captivity” 183). When making comparisons across race and gender, these same ordinary behaviors go unpunished (183). These studies point to the correlations between unchecked racism and its consequences for Black girls—exclusion, alienation, suspension, and expulsion.

The Crisis of Black Girls Criminalization

The criminalization of Black girls is widespread and pervasive. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, “Black girls are 16 percent of the female student population, but nearly one-third of all girls referred to law enforcement and more than one-third of all female school-based arrests” across the United States. (Morris, Pushout 3). Consequently, Black girls are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system (JJS). According to the Department of Education, Black girls represent only 16% of girls in schools, but 42% of them receive corporal punishment, 42% are expelled, and they make up 34% of the girls who are arrested on campuses across the U.S. (Scott). Black girls are also suspended from school and arrested more than girls of every other race (Scott; Taylor-Thompson 1137). More broadly, girls of color represent two-thirds of the females in the JJS in the United States, and they often receive the most severe sentences (1138). Black girls, however, are the fastest growing population within the JJS (Morris 2-3).

Comparative studies across race and gender have similar results: Black girls are more likely than white girls to receive exclusionary discipline outcomes (Blake et al.; Stevens et al.; Morris and Perry; Paul and Araneo). Blake et al. found that Black girls are twice as likely to receive suspensions than all other females and are at a higher risk for exclusionary discipline compared to white girls (100). Stevens et al. discovered that as girls deviate from gender norms, their punishment increases in severity (738). Morris and Perry found that across race and gender in school discipline, Black girls are disproportionately harmed (144). They are three times more likely than white girls to receive a referral (135). Paul and Araneo compare Black girls to other races and genders in each category for suspensions and expulsions in New Jersey (6). They found that Black girls are overrepresented in both suspensions and expulsions, and it has increased over time (12). These quantitative studies have illuminated a numerical pattern of Black girls being disproportionately represented in exclusionary discipline outcomes. Black girls are being targeted on a macro (systemic) level.

Racial perceptions affect every aspect of U.S. institutions, including educational spaces. Black girls’ criminalization is a continuation of a historical legacy drenched in gendered racism. Critical race theory is a threat because it asks us to unravel the foundations of a white and Western model of knowledge production; it puts race, racism, and power under the microscope (Deglado and Stafancic 2). Developed in the 70s as a response to whites’ backlash against the civil rights movement, CRT questions the very foundations of a country built upon white supremacy and the normalization of racial hierarchies (4-7). Without CRT and theories like it, confronting the whiteness in Black girls’ criminalization would be an impossibility, and our historical continuation of gendered racism will persist.

Whites’ perception of Black girls’ deviance and its connection with punitive school discipline policies has sky-rocketed their participation in the JJS. By extrapolating the historical legacy of inherent deviance and its effects on Black women and girls, these scholars provide insights into the underlying logic that informs the present-day experiences Black girls have with school discipline. Their criminalization is directly connected to whites’ construction of race and its impact on policy and legislation. There can be no remedy to this public-school crisis without engaging the topic of race and whites know it. These scholars offer an historical framework for understanding why whites may want to suppress critical race theory, ban children’s books related to race, or ignore scholarship on the subject. A closer look at race will mean a destabilization of whiteness. It could (and still can) reveal the falsity of whites’ innocence in the criminalization of Black girls. Confronting race could mean the slow undoing of whiteness as we know it.

Christina Cavener is a doctoral candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. Her dissertation, “Escaping Culpability: A Critical Analysis of Gendered Whiteness,” examines how white women’s raced and gendered views inform their socialization, beliefs, politics, and interactions with BIPOC. Her passion to disrupt white supremacy and gendered racism is rooted in her research and activism. At TWU, she has taught the courses Gender and Social Change, Womanist Spiritual Activism, Women and Western Religions, and Critical Race Feminism.

Editor’s Note 

****We wish to clarify the terms used throughout our “Teaching ‘CRT’ in an Age of White Backlash.” Some of our essays engage actual Critical Race Theory, the legal term used by thinkers & jurists like Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Derrick Bell to explain the racist ways that American laws are enforced and litigated. Our submissions also criticize white conservative attacks on “CRT”—the umbrella term they apply to any teaching critical of white supremacy. The distinction between these terms is important for two reasons. 1) As many have already noted, no one teaches Critical Race Theory in primary or secondary schools (although it would be fine if they did) because it is a legal theory. 2) It is important to explain clearly what white supremacists mean when they use the term “CRT” because it is important that Americans of all ages understand the ways that our racist history and culture contributed to the country we inherit. Thus, although we encourage contributors to use both terms as it relates to their work, we want to be clear that conservatives lie about what Critical Race Theory is both to prevent teaching about our country’s racist past/present and to undermine necessary critiques of our white supremacist legal system.****

Further Reading

Agyepong, Tera Eva. The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945. The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Annamma, Subini Ancy, Yolanda Anyon, Nicole M. Joseph, Jordan Farrar, Eldridge Greer, Barbara Downing, and John Simmons. “Black Girls and School Discipline: The Complexities of Being Overrepresented and Understudied.” Urban Education, vol. 54, no. 2, 2019, pp. 211-242. 

Blake, Jamilia J., Bettie Ray Butler, Chance W. Lewis, and Alicia Darensbourg. “Unmasking the Inequitable Discipline Experiences of Urban Black Girls: Implications for Urban Educational Stakeholders.” Urban Review, vol. 43, 2011, pp. 90-106.

Bryan, Nathaniel. “White Teachers’ Role in Sustaining the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Recommendations for Teacher Education.” Urban Review, vol. 49, 2017, pp. 326-345.

Campbell, Antoinette. “Police handcuff 6-year-old student in Georgia.” CNN, 17 Apr. 2012, https://www.cnn.com/2012/04/17/justice/georgia-student-handcuffed/index.html. Accessed 8 Dec. 2018. 

Dakss, Brian. “Handcuffed 5-Year-Old Sparks Suit.” CBS, 25 Apr. 2005, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/handcuffed-5-year-old-sparks-suit/. Accessed 8 Dec. 2018.

Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Henfield, Malik S. and Ahmad R. Washington. “I want to do the right thing but what is it?’: White Teachers’ Experiences with African American Students.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 81, no. 2, 2012, pp. 148-161.

Lindsay, Constance A. and Cassandra M. D. Hart. “Exposure to Same-Race Teachers and Student Disciplinary Outcomes for Black Students in North Carolina.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 39, no. 3, 2017, pp. 485-510.

McCorkel, Jill A. Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment. New York University Press, 2013.

Morris, Edward W. and Brea L. Perry. “Girls Behaving Badly? Race, Gender, and Subjective Evaluation in the Discipline of African American Girls.” Sociology of Education, vol. 90, no. 2, 2017, pp. 127-148. 

Morris, Monique W. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press, 2016. 

Paul, Diedre Glenn and Jacqueline Araneo. “Orange is the New Black’ Comes to New Jersey’s Public Schools: Black Girls and Disproportionate Rates of Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions.” Springer Nature, 2018, pp. 1-18.

Selva, Jenn, Joe Sutton and Nicole Chavez. “A Black Girl was Arrested at School in Hawaii Over a Drawing that Upset a Parent.” CNN, 21. Oct. 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/20/us/hawaii-black-girl-arrested-drawing-aclu/index.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2022.    

Scott, Hon. Robert C. “Bobby.” “Fact Sheet: Black Girls in the School-To-Prison Pipeline.” The Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, 2014.   

Stevens, Tia, Merry Morash, and Meda Chesney-Lind. “Are Girls Getting Tougher, or Are We Tougher on Girls? Probability of Arrest and Juvenile Court Oversight in 1980 and 2000.” Justice Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 5, 2011, pp. 719-744.

Taylor-Thompson, Kim. 2006. “Girl Talk: Examining Racial and Gender Lines in Juvenile Justice.” Nevada Law Journal, vol. 6, 2006, pp. 1137-1164.

Vafa, Yasmin, Eduardo Ferrer, Maheen Kaleem, Cherice Hopkins, and Emily Feldhake. “Beyond the Walls: A Look at Girls in D.C.’s Juvenile Justice System.” Rights4Girls and the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative, 2018.

Welch, Kelly and Allison Ann Payne. “Racial Threat and Punitive School Discipline.” Social Problems, vol. 57, no. 1, 2010, pp. 25-48. 

Wun, Connie. “Against Captivity: Black Girls and School Discipline Policies in the Afterlife of Slavery.” Educational Policy, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 171-196.

—. “Unaccounted Foundations: Black Girls, Anti-Black Racism, and Punishment in Schools.” Critical Sociology, vol. 42, no. 4-5, 2016, pp. 737-750.

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