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Obstacles facing black girls topic of UVa panel

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As people nationwide this week discuss and reflect on the implications of recent events unfolding at the University of Missouri and Yale University, several academics and community members at the University of Virginia discussed gendered racial inequality.

Held Thursday evening on UVa Grounds, the “Black Girls Matter” forum was the second in a pair of public meetings this week arranged by The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at UVa.

Following a preliminary forum on Monday, the institute held the forum to continue the discussion about how school-age black girls are treated in schools, institutions and everyday life. The forums are part of a larger yearlong series the institute is facilitating called “Engaging Race.”

According to the 2011-12 school year statistics from the Department of Education, black girls were suspended six times more than white girls. Black boys were suspended at half that rate when compared to their white male counterparts.

Deborah McDowell, director of the Woodson Institute, said the impetus for the forum was a recent report from the African American Policy Forum and the Columbia University Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected.”

“We want to bring scholars who are working on areas of research that require some sort of social intervention and urgency,” McDowell said. “This report reveals … they are being funneled, in disproportionate levels, into the criminal justice system.”

“This is a matter requiring our attention,” she said.

According to the report, which analyzed the New York City and Boston school systems, researchers found that discipline, suspension and expulsion rates for black girls in those school systems were extraordinarily higher than for white girls, often 10 to 12 times higher.

The expulsion rate for black girls in New York City was 53 times higher than their white female counterparts — the most drastic discrepancy.

“Black girls are rendered invisible in the broader school-to-prison pipeline conversations, despite a profound racial and gendered impact of zero-tolerance policies,” said Priscilla Ocen, an associate professor of law at Loyola Law School and one of the co-authors of the “Black Girls Matter” report.

“Radicalized and gendered implicit biases increase the likelihood that black girls will be disciplined,” she said.

While the trope of the “strong black woman” often makes them seem impervious, stereotypes defining black women as disobedient, loud and confrontational make them — despite what their actual age or personal demeanor might be — a target for overzealous discipline in schools and communities, Ocen said.

“Since slavery, black children have not been imagined as embodying the ideals of innocence and childhood,” said panelist Tammy-Cherelle Owens, a pre-doctoral fellow at the Woodson Institute. Owens is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Minnesota’s American Studies program.

“Race has refused that status of child,” Owens said. “Recognizing the violence that black girls experience as a result of being outside the dominant constructs of childhood and girlhood, some of the most influential black women and girls from all factors of life and cultures throughout history have directly or indirectly tried to articulate that they experience oppression as a result of being wedged at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and, most importantly, age.”

The forum panel included UVa Curry School of Education Associate Professor Joanna Williams and Ph.D. candidate Lindsey Jones. Lakisha Simmons, an assistant professor of Global Gender Studies at the University of Buffalo, also was a panelist.

Several hours after the forum, university students and other activists gathered on Grounds on Thursday for a demonstration of solidarity with black students and activists across the country.

In a letter which announced the planned demonstration, the UVa Black Student Alliance stated it supports “Black students and activists” at Missouri and Yale.

“Their feelings, their actions, and their demands are neither isolated nor overreaching,” the letter says. “On the contrary, these students have articulated the concerns and desired changes for which Black students throughout the country and throughout time have advocated.”

In addition to asking activist students to act safely, the alliance called upon them to act resolutely: “The purpose of the University is to produce citizens in the truest sense of the word: citizens who engage with and think critically about the state of our country, and of our world.”

Chris Suarez can be reached at or (434) 978-7274.


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