By Courtney Bowie, Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program
This week in New York, there has been media coverage of an anti-abortion billboard several stories high outside of the Holland Tunnel declaring "The Most Dangerous Place for an African American Is in the Womb." It features the picture of a beautiful black girl in a pink sundress with a bow in her hair. The Dallas-based anti-abortion organization behind the billboard is trying to make the point that black women have abortions at higher rates than women of other ethnic groups in New York City.
I find the advertisement offensive for a number of reasons. In addition to being offended as a black woman, I am offended that groups such as this one would deny a black woman facing an unintended pregnancy the ability to make the best decision for herself and her family and would ignore the danger to black children after they are born.
About 34 percent of black children live in poverty, compared to 30 percent of Hispanic children, 15 percent of white children and 19 percent of children overall. Thirty-five percent of black children live with two married parents, compared to 67 percent overall. Statistically, every place in this country is a dangerous place for a black child. The infant mortality rate for black children in Washington D.C. rivals that of undeveloped nations in Africa. Seriously. Memphis is like a Third World country for black children.
The Mississippi Delta is even worse. Infant mortality is high. Illiteracy rates are staggering. Graduation rates are abysmal. There are no billboards expressing outrage about any of these issues. Black children are pushed out of school without an education or the ability to earn a living wage. Their life chances are extremely limited. There is no outrage about this. In the Mississippi Delta, school is a dangerous place for a black child.
A word about DeSoto County, Mississippi. It is just below the Memphis, Tennessee, border and for many years, it was the destination of white parents escaping Memphis schools and the city's perceived crime. The ACLU recently settled two cases against the DeSoto County School District. The legal issue in the case involved a gang policy so broad and vague, innocent conduct could lead to expulsion and no parent or child would know what conduct, in fact, was prohibited. This ended up giving school administrators and school police officers unchecked discretion to use the policy to expel students they no longer wanted in the school. Black students ended up being the victims of this policy. Four years ago, the punishment for violating the policy was changed from suspension to expulsion.
Assuming the gang threat is real, expulsion only increases a community’s gang problem. The real issue is that the gang policy’s vagueness allowed school administrators to racially profile and expel black students from this white flight district. Where’s the outrage? There are not any billboards expressing the suffering of black parents who either bought property or paid rent in DeSoto County, yet through no fault of their own, were denied the benefit of a public school education for their children.
These policies, and others like them that push black children out of school, have to be challenged. The failure to educate black children, the increasing achievement gap, and the increasing poverty rates and isolation of black children are signs of how we value these children after they are born. It sends a message to the child and to the community, and it is devastating.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a black child is suspended from a public school every four seconds. A black child is arrested every minute. A black high school student drops out of school every 39 seconds. While it is impossible to know the individual circumstances of each of these cases, for the black children we represented in DeSoto County, we know that the subjective enforcement of the gang policy allowed our clients to be pushed out of the district for harmless activities that many children do and have done. They just happened to be the students the district wanted to get rid of.
The billboard in New York will be removed due to public outrage over its message. But that doesn't change the fact that the most dangerous place for a black child isn't the womb. It's any public space, including school.