Updated: May 4
June 17, 2014 President Barack Obama The White House 1600 Pennsylvania avenue Washington, D.C. 20500 Dear President Obama,
We write to join the concerns expressed by the letter from 200 Black men about My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), and to share our hopes that together, we can re-align this important initiative to reflect the values of inclusion, equal opportunity and shared fate that have propelled our historic struggle for racial justice forward.
While we applaud the efforts on the part of The White House, private philanthropy, social justice organizations and others to move beyond colorblind approaches to race-specific problems, we are profoundly troubled about the exclusion of women and girls of color from this critical undertaking. The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination.
We simply cannot agree that the effects of these conditions on women and girls should pale to the point of invisibility, and are of such little significance that they warrant zero attention in the messaging, research and resourcing of this unprecedented initiative. When we acknowledge that both our boys and girls struggle against the odds to succeed, and we dream about how, working together, we can develop transformative measures to help them realize their highest aspirations, we cannot rest easy on the notion that the girls must wait until another train comes for them. Not only is there no exceedingly persuasive reason not to include them, the price of such exclusion is too high and will hurt our communities and country for many generations to come.
Those who have justified the exclusive gender focus of MBK often remind us that male youth of color are like the miner’s canary: their plight warns us that something is wrong in the mine. Indeed, something is desperately wrong when so many of our youth are falling victim to the consequences of punitive discipline, underfunded schools, poor job prospects, declining investments in public space, decreasing access to higher education, and worsening prospects on the job market.
Clearly, American society continues to be a toxic environment for many of our young people. Yet male-exclusive initiatives seem to lose sight of the implications of the canary’s distress: it is not a signal that only male canaries are suffering. It makes no sense to equip the canary with a mentor, a gas mask and or some other individual-level support while leaving the mine as it is and expecting the females to fend for themselves. If the air is toxic, it is toxic for everyone forced to breathe it.
The President is right that our youth need to be sent a message that they are valued, that their lives matter and that someone cares enough for them to invest time, resources and attention to confront the obstacles undermining their futures. Yet apparently, the “kids” who warrant such wide-scale investment do not include girls and young women of color. But, let this much be clear: today, many women and girls of color are under siege in the united states and the myth that they are not must be challenged.
Our daughters’ lives are disproportionately at risk, as data on violent victimization make clear. Native American girls are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups, while Black girls have the highest rates of interpersonal victimization from assault and are more likely to know their assailant than all other groups. Additionally, the homicide rate among Black girls and women ages 10-24 is higher than for any other group of females, and higher than white and Asian men as well.
Our daughters’ access to education is disproportionately compromised. Black girls are more than 3 times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls, and are disproportionately funneled through the juvenile justice systems. This is the first step in a process that leads to the over incarceration of Black women, whom are 3x more likely to wind up behind bars than white women. Additionally, the four-year graduation rate for Latinas is the lowest among all girls. Dropping out of high school places all youth at risk, but the negative effects on their long term economic security is even greater for girls than it is for boys.
Our daughters’ economic futures are disproportionately undermined by wage and wealth inequality. Women of color face both gender and race barriers in the job market, and typically make less than both men of color and white women. The median wealth for Latinas is $120 and for Black women it is $100 dollars, this means that just about half of Black women and Latinas are forced to walk an economic high wire without any net whatsoever. Considering that the majority of all households depend on women’s wages and wealth, the economic future of female youth is vital to the community as a whole, including the sons and daughters that are dependent on their mothers’ well-being.
Our daughters are ignored and under-researched. Although the exclusion of girls has been justified as data-driven, the fact is that little data is gathered on them. This situation creates a vicious cycle in which the assumptions that girls are not in crisis leads to research and policy interventions that overlook them, thus reinforcing their exclusion from efforts like MBK to bring successful programs to scale. MBK is not only built on this foundation, but extends it further by failing to require the inter-agency task force to report data that address the wellbeing of girls of color as well as boys. This erasure simply adds to the crisis that girls of color face, forcing them to suffer in relative silence.
In short, women and girls of color are not doing fine, and until they are, men and boys will not be doing fine either.
Girls and young women must be included in all our efforts to lift up the life chances of youth of color. To those who would urge us to settle for some separate initiative, we need only recall that separate but equal has never worked in conditions of inequality, nor will it work for girls and women of color here.
To those who would urge us to take up our concerns with The White House council on women and girls, we note that the council, like many gender-focused initiatives on women, lacks an intersectional frame that would address the race-based challenges faced by young women of color in a racially-stratified society. We note as well that the scale and magnitude of the issues addressed within MBK are specific to the needs of communities of color. The White House council on women and girls should of course, be encouraged and supported to do more; however, girls and women of color suffer, struggle and succeed with the men and boys in their lives. Only together will our collective well-being improve.
Moving forward, we are mindful that those who risked their lives to challenge racial injustice believed that we all deserved better lives: men as well as women, girls as well as boys. Holding up the reality of our shared fate, we call on all MBK partners--public as well as private--to expressly include women and girls of color in this historic effort. We stand ready to work together to realize the aspirations that we all share for our youth and for our community.