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Black Girls’ Zero-Sum Struggle: Why We Lose When Black Boys Dominate the Discourse

There’s no saving black and brown men without the labor and love of black and brown women. Who’ll lift us?
 
 
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Two African-American girls live in the White House. But Malia and Sasha Obama’s presence there, in a traditional two-parent home, alongside their highly accomplished mother and their devoted grandmother, feeds a dangerous and false narrative about the progress of African-American girls and women. Though President Obama has been able to provide this kind of life for his daughters, he seems oblivious to all the ways in which Malia and Sasha’s educational and economic trajectory, even prior to coming to the White House, looks in no way similar to that of the masses of African-American girls.

Like many African-American men, the president has bought into the narrative about the problems of absentee black fathers and about the potential danger and destructiveness of fatherless black sons. Donning the role of father-in-chief for back people last week, the president announced his new My Brother’s Keeper initiative, designed to address and ameliorate issues of low achievement and lack of mentoring for young black and brown men.

I am ambivalent about My Brother’s Keeper. Yes, by almost every social measure, African-American men, and boys in particular, fall behind at alarming rates. They are suspended from school the most, incarcerated the most, have the highest rates of unemployment, commit disproportionate amounts of violent crime, and have some of the lowest high school and college graduation rates. Frequently their encounters with law enforcement and white male authority figures end with black men dead.

These are alarming times. Times that would make Ida B. Wells weep. Over these many months, as I have watched the failure to convict both Trayvon Martin’s and Jordan Davis’ killers, I have worried. Worried because I know that when African-American boys are being killed with impunity by white people this triggers every kind of deeply held race trauma that African-Americans have. We circle the wagons. We fight fiercely to protect our beloved boys. We demand their right to grow into men. And we should.

The thing is: This “we” is mostly African-American women – doing the fighting, the organizing, the praying, the rearing, the fussing, the protecting, the loving. And the losing.  Black women have been their brothers’ biggest and best keepers.

But when black men occupy space at the center of the discourse, black women lose critical ground. I wish these struggles did not feel like zero sum struggles. I wish that black men — Barack Obama included — had the kind of social analysis that saw our struggles as deeply intertwined.

According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are  suspended at a higher ratethan all other girls and white and Latino boys. Sixty-seven percent of black girls reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness for more than two weeks straight compared to 31 percent of white girls and 40 percent of Latinas. Single black women have the lowest net wealth of any group, with  research showing a median wealth of $100. Single black men by contrast have an average net wealth of $7,900 and single white women have an average net wealth of $41,500. Fifty-five percent of black women (and black men) have never been married, compared to 34 percent for white women.

This situation is dire at every level. But perhaps the most troubling thing of all: The report indicates that while over 100 million philanthropic dollars have been spent in the last decade creating mentoring and educational initiatives for black and brown boys, less than a million dollars has been given to the study of black and brown girls!

Several years ago, in line with the rise of the field of Girls Studies in academe, a group of students asked me to teach a course on Black Girls Studies. The number of books and scholarly articles barely added up to enough for a full course syllabus.