David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 23, 2020
“Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” is a provocative book that should be read and discussed by all educators, parents of students, school resources officers and school board members and candidates — everyone concerned about the schooling in America.
It is largely based on interviews by the author, Monique W. Morris, with black girls about their experiences in schools. The more I watched ”Pushout”-related interviews on Youtube and a documentary based on the book, I realize Morris makes sense, but I find her message unsettling.
Her key idea is that because of “historical trauma,” black girls interact with schools in a way that results in black girls being seven times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be arrested than white girls. Classmates and school authorities are often ill-prepared to effectively interact with black girls because of a lack of cultural competence and training. Morris argues that black boys are victims of the “school to prison pipeline,” but black girls are caught in a variety of “school to confinement pathways” more easily overlooked by educators.
Black girls are pushed out of school by exclusionary school discipline policies, such as culturally biased dress codes and hair policies, inadequate school responses to black girls’ trauma, poverty, family problems and experience with violence. Think about it: a black girl from a high-crime neighborhood will not respond to an approaching school resource officer, i.e. police, the same way that a white student or a black male will.
In the past few years, videos have gone viral on the internet showing police officials overreacting to young black girls with excessive force in schools and at a public pool. That’s why “Pushout” should be read in police departments, not just in schools.
Morris’s approach and message are easy to resist by blindly saying “all students should follow all the rules” but that won’t work. I would not have been open to this book five years ago. Not only am I an aging white male, I am a higher-educated, trained follower of the rules who has succeed by either following the rules or by learning how to circumvent them. Two events, however, prepared me to give “Pushout” a fair reading. First, I have learned about the necessity for black children to “code switch,” to learn mainstream (white) English as well as black community English. This is almost like being bilingual, a daunting task for a first grader learning to read.
Secondly, I had an eye-opening personal experience with a 30-ish African American man at a local soup kitchen where I volunteer. We had a warm, friendly conversation in the lobby area where he wanted to eat his dinner. Before he had his food, I mentioned that everyone is supposed to eat in the dining room. We talked some more, and he got up and went and got his dinner and brought it back to the lobby area. I gently reminded him that he should eat in the dinning area. He replied that the lobby was more pleasant, quiet and relaxing so he preferred to sit on the floor and enjoy his dinner. I said something like “the rule is that everyone should eat in the dining room.” He replied nicely but firmly “If my eating here is a personal affront to you, then I will move; if it is only a rule, I would rather eat right here.” After a few seconds, I said “Go ahead and eat here; it is not crowded.” No harm, no foul.
Morris argues that black girls are often punished in schools for their attitudes and disrespect for authority not for their disruptive or threatening behavior. Dress codes, hair restrictions, and rolling eyes in a show of defiance are easy examples of requirements that black girls are likely to view differently than other students. Hair styles are important for most girls. Consequently, wearing a ball cap or bandana on a bad hair day might make good sense to a girl. Likewise, wanting to wear a natural hairstyle or a hair wrap on a good day might feel like a good idea, too. Both often are precluded by school requirements and put black girls in confrontation with school authorities.
Morris argues that societal stereotypes about black students works against their success in schools. Black youth are often thought to look older than they are and thought to be loud when they “speak up and speak out” to school and legal authorities. Morris proposes that in addition to protecting black girls from bullying and violence, schools should have more proactive programs about intimate relationships; they should foster strong student-teacher relationships resulting in black girls feeling better understood and respected; and that schools implement fair school credit recovery programs.
Morris’s message is unsettling because it presents a challenge to traditional school systems and the conformity they demand. Morris wants to make schools a place of healing not a place where black girls experience more trauma. “Pushout” would be an excellent focus for discussion among teachers, school police officers, school authorities, and among black girls and their parents.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.