“Substantial obstacles to equal educational opportunity still remain in America’s educational system…Over a third of African American students do not graduate from high school on time with a regular high school diploma, and only four percent of African American high school graduates interested in college are college-ready across a range of subjects.”
-Excerpt from The White House Executive Order
President Obama recently issued an Executive Order launching the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The document outlines both the rationale for the Initiative and the key steps that will be taken to develop an agenda to improve the achievement of African American students. Citing the continued barriers to full and equal access to quality education, the Initiative establishes an important and symbolic—one could argue long overdue—gesture toward elevating national concern about persistent underperformance and stunted access to quality education among Black students.
The only problem is that the language in the Initiative appears to be driven by the dominant narrative prioritizing males above females in the discourse on equity and excellence in education. The Executive Order speaks specifically to some of the conditions affecting the marginalization of Black students, and in particular, those affecting Black males.
It reads, “An even greater number of African American males do not graduate with a regular high school diploma, and African American males also experience disparate rates of incarceration.”
Whether done intentionally or not, by referring only to male statistics to signify the urgency for the Initiative, the White House has participated in the same zero-sum politics that have marginalized Black females in the racial justice movement for the past decade—females who share schools, communities, resources, homes and families with Black males.
Are Black girls not disproportionately represented among those who are graduating late or leaving school with a document other than a traditional high school diploma?
Are Black girls not disproportionately detained and incarcerated?
Unfortunately, Black girls experience all of the above—and more. The problem is that their conditions are too often ignored or rendered secondary to that of their male counterparts–a condition that can only exist when people are willing to accept that patriarchy has a place in the movement toward racial justice.
The disturbing trend of underperformance and academic marginalization among girls should be viewed as equally important to the conditions of males. Females are heading many of the homes in our communities, and these mothers have long been positively associated with academic achievement. In other words, the more education a female has, the more educated our communities are; and so the repercussions are great when they are educationally marginalized or rendered invisible in the public discourse on educational excellence.
The Initiative calls for the creation of a Commission that will address the structural barriers associated with academic underperformance (e.g., access to highly qualified teachers, well-resourced schools, etc.), as well as the establishment of an Interagency Working Group and a President’s Advisory Commission. At best, there should be a strong agenda for this Initiative that explores the multiple ways in which Black students—both male and female—are affected by old and new manifestations of segregated opportunity. At the very least, I hope that there will be individuals on the Commission with an expertise on the educational conditions affecting the performance of Black girls, such that their needs do not remain invisible or forgotten altogether.
MONIQUE W. MORRIS is a 2012 Soros Justice Fellow working on the education-system pathways to confinement for African American girls. She is the CEO of the MWM Consulting Group, LLC and a Lecturer at St. Mary’s College of California. She is also the author of Too Beautiful For Words (10th Anniversary Edition) and dozens of articles and other publications on social justice issues. For more information, visit www.moniquewmorris.com.