How Criminalization Impacts the Mental Health of Black Girls

Despite making up only 13% of the U.S. population, black girls make up 38% of all youth incarcerated in the US, according to a recent report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Meanwhile in the UK, the number of black girls in youth custody has tripled in the past decade. Historically, the criminalization of black girls has been linked to the societal structure that pushes them into a cycle of poverty and violence, perpetuating the cycle of violence against them.

Although most people assume that black girls are automatically more vulnerable to being victims of crime (such as being the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child-abuse, etc.), what many people don’t know is that black girls are at a much greater risk of being incarcerated than white girls, simply because of their race. Black girls account for over half of all girls in juvenile detention facilities, and they face the toughest punishment for the same crimes, no matter what country or city they are in.

From Ruby Bridges to Sha’Carrie Richardson, the criminalization of black girls and police harassment of black female supremacy are historically woven into the fabric of American guide culture. Black women, more than any other group, are expected to be exemplary in EVERYTHING they do! Not only are they the highest educated group in America, but they are expected to bear children, be matriarchs in their families, excel in their professions, be forgiving and faithful partners to us black men, who are given more grace because they are imperfect – all while fighting against widespread misogyny.

Can we please discuss how growth, criminalization, hyper-sexualization, and misogynist messages affect the mental health of our black girls in and out of schools? Frankly, this is a harsh reality that is not adequately addressed in our conversations about anti-racism and needs to be questioned.


There are implicit biases in the way black girls grow up. A recent study by the Georgetown Law Center found that teachers disown and severely punish black girls for behavior that is normal for their age. For example, it is not uncommon for teenage girls to have mood swings or make disrespectful comments, but when it comes to black girls, it is automatically assumed that they are always angry and have an attitude problem.

Adult prejudice also leads educators to view black girls as less innocent than their white peers. That’s exactly what happened to Kira Wilmot, who found herself on the wrong side of her school district’s zero tolerance policy after she conducted a science experiment that accidentally caused a small explosion on school grounds. As a result of the tantrum, six-year-old Kaia Rolle was arrested and charged with assault. These are just two examples, but I could go on and on. This disturbing trend of anti-adult prejudice has deep anti-black roots and robs black girls of their innocence.


Black girls receive a disproportionate number of infractions and suspensions compared to their white peers due to discriminatory dress codes. Four years ago, Summer, a high school student from North Carolina, was suspended from prom and even threatened with expulsion for wearing a shirt that showed her collarbones. Over the years, we have seen Faith Fennedy, Vanessa VanDyke, twin sisters Maya and Deanna Cook, and many other black girls threatened with punishment for wearing their natural hair to school. Racist policies regarding the hairstyle and appearance of black girls have certainly contributed greatly to the high rate of exclusion of black girls in recent years.


We cannot isolate the various components of our intersecting human identities. Therefore, the fight for justice and liberation cannot be limited to cisgender black girls. The anti-racism movement should also include black transgender girls who, according to GLSEN’s Erasure and Resilience report on black LGBTQ+ youth, experience significantly higher rates of school victimization because of their gender identity and sexual orientation compared to their black cisgender peers. With the aggressive promotion of anti-trans legislation across the country, targeted harassment and violent attacks on black transgender girls in schools will only increase.


In the recent past, black girls have graduated from high school as valedictorians or salutatorians, but after public complaints and further investigation by school districts, they were forced to share these awards with white classmates. That’s what happened in Cleveland in two cases where Jasmine Shepard and Olesia Adams fell victim to this spell. A similar case occurred last month when a Mississippi high school broke with its longstanding tradition and shared honors for Ikeria Washington and Leila Temple with two white classmates after an error was made in calculating the students’ GPA. So let me get this straight. the school has broken with a long tradition of favoring white convenience? Check. Call me biased, but the frequency with which this injustice is repeated is anything but random.


As I said at the beginning, we need to be more intentional about criminalizing black girls in our schools. We are so quick to denounce and celebrate the #BlackGirlMagic, but what concrete steps are we taking as educators to protect our black girls? For starters, we can actively decriminalize black girls by taking the following steps:

  • Sign the Stop PUSHOUT Act petition and help end the criminalization of black and Latino girls in schools.
  • Sign the petition for a clemency bill to help fight racial discrimination against natural hair styles like braids, knots, twists and curls in public schools.
  • Read the following books and publications:
    • Push: The criminalization of black girls in Dr. Monique W.’s schools.  Morris (a documentary of the same name is also available).
    • About intersectionality: Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw’s major work
    • Black girls are important: Evicted, overpopulated and under-protected by Dr Kimberl Crenshaw.
    • Listening to black women and girls: The lived experience of prejudice in adults by Dr. Jamilia Blake and Dr. Rebecca Epstein.
    • Intermittent virginity: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhoods by Dr. Jamilia Blake, Dr. Rebecca Epstein, and Tyla Gonzalez.

This article was originally published on Citizen Education.

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