Decriminalization: The Hidden Truth of Black Girls

By Whitney Bunts and Oumou Kaba

"Society will try to break you down in many ways, school pushout is one but always remember you are enough, you are worthy, you are a Black woman, the strongest, the most resilient, the most fearless, the most hardworking, the most outgoing, and nobody will ever take that away from you.” - Oumou Kaba

The New Deal for Youth Changemakers policy platform is built on four tenets: decriminalization, liberation, reparations, and abolition. Each tenet guides our work to create a safe and equitable world for youth and young adults across the nation. The sole focus of decriminalization, specifically, is to deconstruct the white supremacist structures that actively view and classify young people of color; young people who are a part of the LGBTQIA+, disabled, neurodiverse, and all immigrant communities; foster care youth and former foster care youth; and young people experiencing a mental health crisis, as illegal and criminal. In many cases, criminalization extends beyond just an individual’s actions and behaviors, but to their entire existence--from their conception to the time they take their last breath. This is especially true for Black girls. 

Young Black girls experience criminalization at every point in their life, as their bodies continue to be the victims of hate and over-policing. However, this is not new. The criminalization of Black girls has been occurring since slavery, manifesting itself as harsh punishments, state-sanctioned violence, and  dehumanization.  Today, this criminalization is plainly visible in our legal system, medical institutions, and education. These are the symptoms and realities of racism and sexism that have permeated through the foundation of this country for centuries.  More recently, the phenomenon has appeared as anti-abortion laws in states like Texas. Yet school “pushout policies” are one of the most notable early examples of how institutions criminalize Black girls and their bodies.

Since the 5-4 ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), a monumental U.S. Supreme Court case that integrated schools across the country, Black students and Black girls, in particular, have been the target of unfair discipline practices, suspensions, and violent attacks by school personnel and law enforcement. In the United States, Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers and more likely to be suspended multiple times regardless of race and gender. In addition, Black girls are usually oversexualized, “adult-ified” from a young age, and criminalized for their hair, clothes, and appearance. Overall, black girls are criminalized because of how curvy they are, because of their identity, because of the way they are, and lastly, because of their melanated skin. Society perceives Black girls as less innocent than their white peers, which results in them receiving less support, nurturing, and protection from punitive practices and violence throughout their lives.

The following graphic provides a small sample of the young Black girls and women who were criminalized in their schools and communities in recent history:

These are just a few examples of how America subjects Black girls and women to criminalization, violence, and terror. Black girls are relegated to this type of treatment every day and it goes unaddressed – often becoming an afterthought in someone else’s story. Black girls have been criminalized and dehumanized for far too long. Too many Black girls have been brutalized and murdered at the hands of state-sanctioned violence. But it is time that America recognizes our worth and our power. Black girls will no longer go unseen or criminalized for simply being Black.  If the US truly wants to make a transformational change and address racial equity, then we must decriminalize Black and brown bodies, specifically Black girls and women. Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” 

Nobody in this country will be free until the Black girl and woman are free. Congress, you have the power to legislate this change by passing the Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma (PUSHOUT) Act, introduced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley. While this bill doesn’t and can’t address all the criminalization Black girls face - it is a start. A start to show Black girls they matter at an early age. Additionally, Congress must ban zero-tolerance policies, unfair dress code policies, and hire more title IX coordinators. This nation is surviving on the backs of Black women, and it is about time it starts to show its appreciation. A New Deal for Youth understands that decriminalizing people across the nation, specifically the most marginalized, creates a pathway to liberation from and the dismantling of white supremacist structures.



Photo Credits:

1. Claudette Colvin:
2. Latasha Harlins: Netflix
3. LaVena Johnson:
4. Rekia Boyd:
5. Kiera Wilmot: WTSP News
6. Korryn Gaines:
7. Breonna Taylor: