Opinion: The crisis of gender inequality among African Americans runs deep

Posted on 15 April 2012


Published: Sunday, April 15, 2012, 6:00 AM
By Times of Trenton guest opinion column

AP/Courtesy of Du Bois family
This is a copy of an undated photo of the DuBois family showing W.E.B. DuBois, center, with his wife, Shirley
Graham DuBois, left, stepson David DuBois, and daughter, Yolanda DuBois.
The photo was published in the 1978 book entitled “DuBois: A Pictorial Biography” by Shirley Graham DuBois.

By W. Renee Walker

Two opinion columns published March 23 in The Times were used to demarcate the battleground where the fight over personal freedom and racial injustice in America is being contested. Essayists Paul Mulshine (“Reaction to what happened in a Rutgers dorm goes too far”) and Jamal Eric Watson (“Menace of racial profiling still stalks among us”) drew from recent tragedies to fuel their argument that either the state has gone too far or the nation has not gone far enough to ensure equal protection under law and in practice everywhere.

Undeniably, both authors have been drawn into a debate that was resolved in 1780 by Mary DuBois, who sued Massachusetts for her personal freedom. The triumph of Mrs. DuBois may elude Messrs. Mulshine and Watson because of their reluctance to focus on the gender inequality the honorable Hillary Clinton defines as the single most significant social injustice extant not just in the Americas, but worldwide. Secretary of State Clinton made this observation while unveiling the Obama administration’s National Plan on Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University late last year. Clinton’s lecture observed that including women and girls in peacemaking and peacekeeping is the most important equality we can promote and sustain.

When Mary DuBois’ grandson, W.E.B. DuBois, proffered his famous claim against color prejudice, only 35 years had elapsed since the Civil War amendments were ratified by three-fourths of the states. DuBois’ hope for color-blind gender equality has been eclipsed by statistics that show that one in three female-headed white American families is in poverty, while one in two female-headed African-American families lives below the poverty line.

In the 21st century, gender inequality is even more concentrated among African-American female-headed families with children younger than 5 years of age. This group accounts for the majority of American families in poverty. The condition of these female-headed families is more acute than that of the African girls in antebellum America, who made up the 70 percent of the work force that started working by the age of 7.

Today’s African-American female family heads do not live in nuclear families, they do not hold down steady full-time jobs and, unlike their antebellum African female family counterparts, they are more likely to have given birth to the first of their seven children before they graduated from high school and before they cast their first vote to elect any government officials to represent them.

When adolescent girls head single-parent homes, they are unequipped physiologically, emotionally or financially to rear one child, let alone the seven children and grandchildren they are likely to inherit in their lifetime. Traditional human services have been ineffective with these families, whose girls produce the children in custody because of adjudicated births, truancies, detentions, diversions, probations, incarcerations and paroles that follow them from their first pregnancy to the end of life.

The crisis of girls whose families spend their lives in criminal custody eludes popular discourse because scholars focus too much attention on statistics that show that females comprise only 5 percent of prisoners worldwide. Around the world, children born into adolescent female-headed families are significantly more likely than any other children to spend their developing years in the custody of child and family, juvenile and youth detention agencies. These experiences inevitably lead to the criminal custody and criminal surveillance that continues throughout the adult lives of the children who are born into this punishment continuum.

Girls with children who spend their lives in criminal custody are the final frontier of American prejudice. They are labeled at-risk, disenfranchised, disadvantaged, disabled, underprivileged, underachievers and the underclass. Girls from female-headed families become mothers themselves before they can earn a high school diploma, before they can vote, and before they can start work and pay taxes. The children these girls produce are more likely to become truants before they can master educational foundations, to have a criminal record before they earn a high school diploma and to have a child themselves, which does nothing more than reload the punishment cycle.

Girls with children who lose liberties that law-abiding citizens take for granted are unprepared for school, unequipped for work and are not socialized to be responsible citizens. They often resent or mistrust human services, which they feel are biased against them. They are labeled delinquents early in their educational histories, and they are overburdened because they are born into dysfunctional families.

Gender equality among this population should be the focus of our national dialogue about race, and it should consume our passion about optimizing personal freedom for all Americans as well. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stood firm for the rights of all of his state’s citizens to equal educational opportunity when he said, earlier this year at the Voorhees town hall meeting on his educational reform initiative, “What is never addressed is the high cost of remediation to students, social justice and our shared mission to serve urban and rural environments equitably.”

W. Renee Walker, Ph.D., is professor of social sciences at Mercer County Community College.