“You see the boys" trying to earn money on Baltimore’s streets, an educator asked an audience Saturday during a panel discussion at the Baltimore Museum of Art about challenges facing many city youth. "Have you ever wondered where the girls are?”
I was jolted into realizing that I had not.
Like many in the audience, I’d been consumed with talk about violence in the streets that has so far claimed 282 this year — all but 28 of them male, from toddlers to elders — and has wounded thousands more. I had not given much thought to the fact that if economic forces produce squeegee boys, they must also lead girls to questionable alternatives to earn money to, in some cases, keep a roof over their families’ heads or keep the electricity on. The educator suggested that two routes might be the sex trade or selling drugs.
The discussion Saturday followed the screening of a documentary film making the rounds, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” and it stunned me into acknowledging just how much I have been socialized to accept that females have a harder lot and black females the hardest of all.
These are some of the national statistics about high school: Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Three times more likely to be restrained. Four times more likely to be arrested. In Baltimore, the panel of educators, lawmakers and activists said, black girls are similarly singled out.
Their treatment reflects the way many of them are seen: as Jezebels or as caregivers. They are rarely seen as just girls, growing into themselves, sometimes with sass, sometimes with disdain for authority figures, sometimes a bit loud, sometimes mischievous, sometimes testing boundaries, sometimes just needing to vent. But just girls. A major factor is that white teachers just don’t get black girls. In Baltimore, 80% of pupils are black. This year the school system has a teaching staff that is 46% black — the highest in more than a decade. Racial and cultural differences mean that girls being girls elsewhere may be seen here primarily as disruptive or even criminal.
More than half of the students in Baltimore schools are from low-income families, and a good many of them cope with the worst the city offers in health, housing and safety. And yet, as Lorece Edwards, a professor in Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy, sees it: “We don’t teach with poverty in mind. We assume that students all have the same needs.”
Some time ago students put in check her highfalutin talk about preparing for the future. For them it’s like the old song, “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad.” They talked of typical journeys from school to home that inevitably included an encounter with police wanting to know what’s in their bookbags, where they are going and whether they are selling drugs. Then they navigate paths least likely to mean being shot, stabbed or robbed as they pass abandoned buildings in decaying neighborhoods fraught with liquor stores, fast-food joints and corner stores selling unhealthy fare. At home, there may be no electricity. Or they might be homeless and sleeping wherever they find a welcome couch. A parent might be incarcerated or addicted to drugs.
“And then when they make it back to school, teachers want them to perform in optimum ways — which is crazy,” she says, adding: “I think it’s even worse for young females because they have multiple roles. We don’t think about the harsh situations confronting these girls.”
Ms. Edwards has studied how young black Baltimoreans, girls and boys, “adjust to the hardships associated with learning how to survive” and has come up with a word for it, one that she has trademarked: Survivornomics. Too many young people have decided that they cannot afford to make long-term plans for college and high-paying legitimate jobs — the Holy Grail of our educational system. Survivornomics means that they adjust to perceived risks and do what they must to get through the day.
She is sounding alarms. One of those warnings is that school-as-usual is inadequate for kids dealing with what social scientists refer to as “adverse childhood experiences” that take place in communities classified as “adverse community environments.” These are the highly segregated and marginalized communities that dot Baltimore. The side some of us shield our eyes from and try to hide from tourists.
To quote the late Rep. Elijah Cummings: “We can do better than this.”
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.