By Stephany Rose
NNPA Guest Columnist
In the Christian faith, the Syrophoenician woman’s testimony is one of the most popular narratives in the gospels. She was a woman who – because of her gender, ethnicity and nationality – was not marked as a disciple of Christ. She was also a mother whose daughter was haunted by an evil that could not be cast out by normal means. Her child “was grievously vexed by a devil,” and she looked to Jesus for an intervention. Despite her stark marginalization and alienation as a non-Israelite, she was willing to ignore societal norms and to withstand ridicule to plead her case for her ill-fated daughter. Consequently, her dedication to her child’s liberation has resonated as an inspirational act of faith for generations of Christians.
Many sermons on the unnamed Syrophoenician woman teach us about her faith and her yearning for the liberation of her child. Yet, as was revealed in Matthew’s gospel, religious leaders often ignored the collective disdain that Christ’s disciples had for this woman and her daughter. Too focused on their own comforts, the disciples – who had just witnessed salvation and should have been in tune with the values of freedom and justice – pleaded to have her sent away.
They lacked the capacity for empathy and the ethical convictions necessary to fight for her rights and her daughter’s well-being even though, in some respects, they may have admired her mother’s strength. In this way, the plight of the Syrophoenician woman can be seen as a metaphor for the climate Black mothers face in the United States today as they struggle to liberate themselves and their daughters.
As widespread support has been garnered for the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative (MBK) – designed to address the systemic racial inequities facing boys and young men of color – their female counterparts remain on the margins of our concerns. The MBK Task Force recently released its one-year progress report to the president on the effectiveness of the program.
In a “triumphant” response, the White House lauded itself for MBK having so far raised $300 million in the private sector, and prompted more than 200 communities to sign on the for the MBK Community Challenge, where local municipalities create their own new programs for men and boys of color. In this way, popular discourse forwarded by entities like the Obama administration suggests that boys and young men of color warrant drastic measures to address the inequities they encounter, implying by omission that girls of color are faring much better. Calls to address the systemic barriers that Black girls face are, more often than not, read as special interests that distract us from the presumably more urgent needs of boys in our communities. With its continued commitment to MBK, the White House has furthered the dominance of a male-exclusive framework for racial justice.
Countering this framework is the African American Policy Forum’s recent report, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” The groundbreaking report highlights the debilitating realities that Black girls confront in the public school system. Researchers analyzed Department of Education data and examined the impact of punitive disciplinary policies in the New York and Boston public schools.
While there is no doubt that Black boys face systemic racial barriers, the report reveals comparable challenges faced by their female counterparts that underscore why we cannot continue to relegate girls to the margins of concern.
In some cases, the report found that, “the relative magnitude of racial disparity between girls is greater than the disparity between boys.” For example, across the nation in the 2011-2012 academic year, Black girls were six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, while Black boys were three times more likely to be suspended than White boys.
In the same year, Black girls in New York City were 90 percent of girls expelled while not a single White girl was punished in similar fashion. In Boston, Black girls were 10 times more likely to be expelled than their White counterparts. Thus, while in absolute numbers Black boys face the highest rates of disciplinary action, attention to the discipline rates experienced by Black girls reveals a level of racial disparity that is deeply disturbing.
Black Girls Matter also demonstrates that there are gendered barriers that Black girls face disproportionally, such as familial responsibilities, the stigma associated with teenage pregnancy, and sexual assault. Moreover, it notes that the lifelong income gap between girls who don’t graduate from high school and those who do is larger than the gap between boys.
The gender and race disaggregated data presented in “Black Girls Matter” shows that Black girls are not doing “just fine.” The desire to dismiss the daughters, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and countless unnamed women of color living in crisis to the shadows of our concern for our boys, therefore, can no longer be tolerated. Telling Black girls to “wait their turn” or to “wait for the boys to be helped first” is irresponsible, impractical and unjust. As a Christian, I believe that relegating mothers to beg for the crumbs off the table because we refuse to see them as part of the “lost sheep” is unequivocally unrighteous. Let’s not treat Black women and girls in America today as the disciples once treated the Syrophoenician woman. Instead let us extend to them the same hopes and dreams we desire for our boys by centering their concerns at the heart of our quest for racial justice.
Stephany Rose is assistant professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She is also senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church of Colorado Springs. Rose is author of Abolishing White Masculinity from Mark Twain to Hiphop: Whiteness in Crisis.