Children and Families Forum: Advancing Equity for Black Girls
In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, the county in which the city of Pittsburgh is located, black girls are 10 times more likely than white girls to be referred to the juvenile justice system. Yet, research shows that this disproportionate referral rate cannot be accounted for by differences in girls’ behaviors. Nationally, black girls are three times more likely than white girls to be referred to juvenile justice, also a troubling disparity. In recent years, there have been efforts to raise awareness of these disparities, to discover their causes, and to address the inequities that they reveal, both locally and nationally. This is an important issue for social workers, because, in addition to the roles we have within the juvenile justice system, we often work in the systems that should be helping girls before juvenile justice involvement—including the child welfare, education, and behavioral health systems.
This growing attention to the challenges facing girls and women of color includes efforts, during President Obama’s administration, spearheaded by the White House Collaborative on Equity in Research on Women and Girls of Color. As a growing body of research documents, black girls are exposed to a specific confluence of racism and sexism that generates unique experiences of marginalization. Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the term “intersectionality” to reflect how different aspects of identity and social location interact to shape experiences that cannot be understood by examining any one aspect in isolation. Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality 30 years ago, and she continues to lead work in this area, most notably with the release of a 2015 report entitled Black Girls Matter, which focuses on how black girls are “pushed out, overpoliced, and underprotected.” This report and other recent research have demonstrated how black girls are disproportionately disciplined at school—frequently for subjective behaviors—oversexualized and harassed without protection and recourse, subject to problematic stereotypes, and punished for behaviors for which other girls are not.
In Pittsburgh, the Black Girls Equity Alliance (BGEA) was formed in 2017 to address these issues at a local level. The BGEA convenes service providers, system professionals, academics, and advocates to collaborate to address issues raised in the 2016 report Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Data
Poverty, abuse, and victimization put girls at risk for physical and behavioral health problems. However, many black girls are not receiving needed health care. More than one-quarter of black girls in Allegheny County, compared with 10% of white girls, reported that during the previous year they believed they needed to see a doctor or nurse or go to the emergency department but did not go. Black girls in Allegheny County are also more likely than white girls to report feeling depressed—one-quarter of all black teen girls reported feeling depressed in the previous year.
Poverty and victimization also put girls at risk for school discipline and justice system involvement. Sometimes girls, particularly black girls, are disciplined at school for disruptive behavior or fighting when in fact they are defending themselves from harassment or assault. A national survey of eighth- through 11th-graders revealed that two-thirds of black girls had been “touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way” at school (American Association of University Women, 2001). Some schools’ solution to this harassment and assault is to send girls home for their own protection, rather than disciplining the perpetrators and creating a safe learning environment. Thus, many black girls are punished for their own victimization and, at times, have their survival strategies criminalized.
At other times, black girls are pushed out of school and/or into the justice system for behaviors that other girls do but for which they do not experience this same treatment (Morris, 2016). Racialized and gendered stereotypes about black girls, including the adultification that many experience, may cause teachers and other authority figures to label them insubordinate or disrespectful (Epstein, Blake, & Gonzalez, 2017). Black girls are especially likely to be disciplined for behaviors that are subjective, such as defiance and disrespect. In the 2017–2018 school year, black youth in Allegheny County were approximately 10 times more likely to be suspended for conduct (the only subjective category) as white youth (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2019).
Many “delinquent” behaviors are normal adolescent behaviors, but racism, sexism, poverty, and living in a low-income neighborhood make some young people more likely to come to the attention of police and system officials than others. For example, black girls and white girls in Allegheny County have similar rates of alcohol and drug use, yet black girls are three times more likely than white girls to be brought into the system for drug offenses. Black girls are also 14 times more likely than white girls to be referred to the juvenile court for nonpayment of fines, which is related to the fact that they disproportionately live in poverty and are unable to pay their fines.
These statistics are troubling. Social workers must challenge negative representations of black girls that blame them for their oppression and to provide documentation and evidence for the widespread occurrence of discrimination that black girls experience. The BGEA was formed to collectively and systematically address these social inequities.
The Black Girls Equity Alliance
Initially, four workgroups were formed: education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and health and wellness. These workgroups began to meet monthly, developing specific goals and plans for achieving them. Open to anyone interested, most of these workgroup meetings have between 10 and 20 members attending. Initially, the workgroups and the overall network of people comprising them had no name. We soon realized that we needed to formalize our connections—not via the formation of a new organization but rather through the creation of an open alliance coordinated by Gwen’s Girls. Each workgroup discussed potential names for the alliance, and there was discussion about the positive and negative aspects of including our specific focus on black girls in our group’s name (as opposed to just referring to girls more generally). Our commitment to focusing on the unique forms of oppression experienced by black girls, as well as our knowledge that addressing systemic inequities affecting those most marginalized will improve these systems for all youth, led to our decision to name ourselves the Black Girls Equity Alliance. Our alliance members include people of many different races and ethnicities and people of any gender identity.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics included are from Goodkind’s 2016 report, Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, available online, or were calculated from publicly available data by the authors.
— Sara Goodkind, PhD, MSW, is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work.
— Kathi Elliott, DNP, MSN, MSW, is executive director of Gwen’s Girls, Inc.
— Britney Brinkman, PhD, is an associate professor in the Point Park University department of psychology.
— Andrea Joseph, PhD, MSW, is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Social Work.
Crenshaw K., Ocen, P., & Nanda, J. (2015). Black girls matter: Pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected. New York, NY: African American Policy Forum.
Epstein, R., Blake, J. J., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of black girls’ childhood. Washington, DC: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Morris, M. W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools. New York, NY: The New Press.
Pennsylvania Department of Education, Safe Schools Online. (2019). https://www.safeschools.pa.gov.