Reviewed: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

pushout_finalA review in 30 bullet points:

  • In 2005, I read David Shipler’s then-new book The Working Poor, where he used people’s narratives to build a case that the American economy was rigged against those who were poor. The beam in his eye, though, is that nearly all of his dozens of stories read like this: “So-and-so dropped out of high school, got pregnant a few times, and keeps getting arrested for drugs and shoplifting and now she can’t even get a dignified job that pays a living wage, people, it’s a nightmare for this poor victim George Bush is evil!” (His hilarious myopia was perfectly exposed here.)
  • Monique Morris uses the same storytelling strategy to make the case for systemic discrimination against black girls in American schools in Pushout, and she does it by making the exact same mistakes David Shipler made a decade ago. A typical example might look like this: “One student repeatedly cussed out the teacher in front of the class and got into fights and suddenly the random oppressors are giving her grief hey everybody this racist system is broken!
  • Of the many stories in this book, zero ever suggest that any trouble a student ever finds herself in is her own fault, not to any degree. Such a message of null responsibility seems dangerous to give to youth, and unethical for a scholar to promote.
  • Morris constantly alludes to “attitude” and “loudness” among black girls (why is such stereotyping OK for her?), and ascribes these traits to a conscious rebellion against a racist system. Again, this is never defended, nor is any alternative explanation ever explored much less refuted (an inexcusable lapse for a scholar!).
  • The girls’ stories are always treated as objectively factual, with nary a shred of skepticism from the author evident. Not to say that the girls are prevaricating–though why wouldn’t they try to look good for a sympathetic interviewer?–but who’s to say that their perceptions of their experiences are perfect? Why is no space ever given for others involved to explain any shortcomings in the girls’ memories? Or is only one side of the story valid? Only one view is privileged here? (Has Morris never seen Rashomon?)
  • A more accurate–and more honest–assessment of the girls in this book would include a more well-rounded picture of their lives. Do they have two parents at home? Did the adults in the family finish high school? Do their families work and obey the law? If the answers to the above are “no” for most of the girls portrayed in this book, that would seem significant–why hide it? If the answers are yes, that would strengthen Morris’s case, so why not advertise it? Her silence on the subject seems telling. (Or are the “no” answers also the result of racist oppression, in a conveniently permanent self-fulfilling loop of begging the question?)
  • Though Morris often throws out statistics like “X% of all suspended students are Black girls,” she never says how much of the total black female student population that percentage represents. A more useful number would be something like “X% of all black girls in America have been suspended.” A large number there would be indicative of a problem, but as it is, she’s looking at a very narrow area of the whole picture. Such obfuscated reporting is disingenuous.
  • The fact is, the vast majority of black girls are never suspended, never in trouble, and never drop out. The vast majority of black girls in America (and I say this after having taught school at several sites around a large and ethnically diverse city for 16 years) do not match the simplified description of them given by Morris. She derides “caricatures of Black femininity,” but constantly indulges in them herself.
  • Her failure to note all of this, much less deal with it, leads me to wonder why she focuses on such a tiny portion of the population; a minority of a minority, really. I suppose it’s because that’s the only way she can make her case for systemic discrimination.

  • Morris never examines, much less proves, her belief that there even is systemic discrimination. Perhaps she feels this book wasn’t the place for it. Perhaps it’s just received wisdom for her, a commonplace article of faith. At any rate, in light of the above point, there’s an enormous flaw in her theory that she needs to deal with: if there is, in fact, systemic discrimination against black girls in America’s schools, then it must be counted as a spectacular failure, for the vast majority of black girls escape the clutches of its machinations completely unscathed. This would seem to be true for all the other trendy brands of proposed “systemic discrimination” out there, also.
  • The author herself is a black woman. I’m curious what her experiences with this “racist” educational system were. Was she ever suspended? Was she ever in confrontational arguments with teachers? Was she “pushed out” by hostile school personnel? Or was she encouraged by the scores of teachers who live to advocate for minorities? Was she given extra attention and opportunities because she was black and female? And did she herself come from an intact, two-parent, law-abiding family? I wonder what the answers to these questions would say about her thesis.
  • I see from her bio in the book’s jacket that she has an advanced college degree and is married with two children. Looks like she could be a great mentor to these girls. I hope she shared with them how she became who she is today.

Following are specific observations throughout the text:

  • Morris makes it all the way to page 19 before mentioning slavery.
  • The facts cited at the bottom of pg. 32 and the top of 33 say that people who drop out of school tend to drop out of schools that people tend to drop out of.
  • An example of Morris’s myopia: one story concerns Jazzy, a 16-year-old dropout. Morris spends three pages waxing on about “internalized racial oppression” relative to Jazzy, but one quote from Jazzy mentions that she had cut a court-ordered electronic monitoring device off from her ankle…seems like there might be some relevant background there. Morris ignores it, and goes on to knock down some vague straw-man villains she sets up on the next page. (43-46)
  • One girl does accept some personal blame for her situation. Morris immediately dismisses that to charge on with her agenda: “Her willingness to embrace personal accountability…can be read as an asset, but I considered the other factors that lead teenagers to push the limits” (49).
  • “Yet many schools punish girls who speak out of turn or challenge what they feel is injustice as if it were a violation of law rather than an interrogation of unfairness” (63). Context of classroom community, anyone? Morris never seems concerned with being fair, only in grinding an ax.
  • Subjective student feelings are always treated as evidence of prejudice by teachers, and those teachers are always part of a concrete system of oppression. *sigh*
  • Pages 71-83 discuss discipline in Chicago schools. Students complain about everything from metal detectors to school police officers. No mention is made of the epidemic of gang violence there, which in recent years has reached truly historical levels. Weird to ignore such a relevant aspect of her protagonists’ milieu.

  • “What can (and should) be developed and nurtured in educational settings, but almost never is, is a deeper awareness of the numerous social factors–related to race, gender, sexuality, disability status, or other identities–that have the power to trigger Black girls and shape their interactions with people in schools….Most common was the notion that an ‘attitude’ was provoked by incidents of disrespect” (86). Note the use of “trigger” and “provoked.” Morris holds the world around them accountable for these girls’ choices 100% of the time in her book. Instead of excusing instinctive victimhood, what if we taught them to be proactive, the kind of soft skill that makes middle class kids successful?
  • Morris often uses the word “perceived” to qualify how others regard the girls in her story, but the girls’ own perceptions are never critically examined.
  • “When girls in the sex trade are removed from school or sent the signal that their presence in school is problematic, they are being handed over to the predators. Essentially, schools are throwing them away” (100). Morris here evinces a worldview where school–government for the young–is the ultimate and only force for good in children’s lives. Where is the family in this “school-to-predators” journey? Nowhere, for Morris. Worse than that omission is her apparent ignorance that this is indeed a big part of the problem.
  • “The racial disparities described here are a function of multiple factors: socioeconomic (unemployment, poverty), educational (poor performance, truancy), juvenile justice (differential handling, lack of gender-responsive treatment and alternatives to detention), and family and community (an incarcerated parent, living in high-crime areas), among others” (145). What others? Anything more salient than the ones listed? Anything more specific and closer to home than “an incarcerated parent?”
  • “Portia and many girls like her who attend these schools, despite their bad choices and the equally bad ones made for them along the way, still have hopes…” (147, emphasis added). This is the first nod to any kind of personal responsibility I’ve seen in this book. And it only took 147 pages! It sits next to a reaffirmation that other factors are still in the foreground, too, but still, it’s something.
  • “I found that one-third of detained Black girls–like Faith–believed that it was because they simply asked the teacher a question. Even when girls were ‘talking back,’ they often felt that they were responding to an unprompted, negative comment made by their teacher” (147, emphasis added). This is evidence? This is how social science works?
  • Morris spends all of page 158 analyzing a single instance of poor word choice by one teacher. Never do the words or actions of the girls in her narratives come under such close scrutiny. Those words are privileged.
  • Chapter 3–about sex trafficking–and chapter 4–about schools in juvenile detention facilities–cover important subjects, but are clearly far outside the mainstream. Does this mean that the mainstream is effective, if one must venture so far out to the fringes of the social experience to find problems? This hinders the ethos of the author’s thesis.
  • “For Heaven, positive encouragement from her teachers was an important dynamic for her continued learning. But those relationships were not there, so she looked for reinforcements elsewhere” (171). Gee, too bad human history hasn’t engineered a safe social setting for children in their own home, from birth, to do this. Does this anecdote go on to tell of Heaven bonding with her family? Of course not, silly. In the world of Monique Morris, there is only government on one hand or disaster on the other.
  • “Prevent and disallow ‘Permission to Fail'” (183). A positive point–I agree with this idea as a general educational goal. I’ve known administrators who believe that students have a “right to fail.” That’s not exactly what the author means here, but it’s a good all-around point.
  • Unless I missed something, the word “father” is never used in this book.
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