Suspension of black girls should raise alarm

October 6, 2018

Every day when I drop off my 3-year-old daughter at school, I whisper something into her ear that only she can hear: “You are an amazing and beautiful black girl, and you can do anything.” We also read stories about courageous black women who changed the world so she knows that she has a special place in this world.

Some may see this as overdoing it because they think that a 3-year-old should just be a kid, but I see it as an important first step to pushing back against a world that will try to characterize her as being too loud, too weak and defiant.

My daughter is #BlackGirlMagic. Created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, #BlackGirlMagic has come to embody the positive achievements of black girls and women who persevere despite adversity. In other words, #BlackGirlMagic praises the promise, power and resiliency of black girls.

Following in the footsteps of Gloria Johnson, who during the 1960s refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, black girls in Texas have protested racial injustice by sitting for the Pledge of Allegiance during the school day. Instead of supporting and engaging with these students and their right to protest, their schools punished and suspended them. Schools should do a better job supporting #BlackGirlMagic and recognizing the challenges they face in today’s society.

Starting in 2014, a student at Klein Oak High School near Houston by the name of M.O. began sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance because she believed our country did not represent liberty and freedom for all. The sitting, which began during her freshman year, resulted in teachers and peers bullying her, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit her family filed.

M.O. is #BlackGirlMagic.

More recently, 17-year-old India Landry of Windfern High School in Houston decided that she would refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. India would choose not to stand for the anthem nearly 200 times, but it was the final time in the principal’s office that got her suspended from school.

India Landry is #BlackGirlMagic.

Protesting during the national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance has become a hotly contested issue that has divided our country. Defenders of Landry and others like her have argued that kneeling or not standing is a protected First Amendment right, while opponents such as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have argued that respecting the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem shows respect to the flag and love of country.

National attention has often focused on black boys when it comes to school suspensions. However, we should be just as concerned when it comes to black girls and their experiences in school. Black girls are six times as likely to be suspended as white girls. Black girls are more likely to face gender, racial and class stereotypes than any other student group in school.

During the past year, news stories have covered schools suspending black girls for their natural hair and braided hair extensions, and for wearing traditional African attire. School suspensions today have little to do with the dangerous and violent behaviors that zero-tolerance discipline policies promoted in the 1990s were designed to prevent. Students are often suspended for nonviolent crimes such as school absences, dress code violations, insubordination and other subjective reasons.

More awareness is needed about black girls and suspension rates. More schools need to re-examine their policies to ensure that barriers that prevent black girls from having a positive schooling experience are removed, and that new systems are built that encourage learning and civic engagement. Even if there is disagreement, a student’s right to protest should be protected.

Marginalized groups have a complex history in the United States. Landry was bringing awareness to this history by silently protesting. Progress is made when we wrestle with this history. We need our schools to do a better job of supporting black girls and combating the racial injustices that some have chosen to protest.

Joshua Childs is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

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