Part III. How Implicit Bias Leads to the Failure of Schools to Effectively Intervene in the Sexual Harassment of African American Girls and Young Women

Interviewer: Are there teachers usually around [when sexual harassment occurs] ?

Katie: Sometimes. But they don't pay no attention. [Security guards] don't pay no attention [and students] don't pay no attention either.
Interviewer: So it's usually the girl that has to speak up for herself?
Katie: Yeah.
Implicit bias research documents the reality of racial prejudice in contemporary U.S. society. When school administrators and teachers respond--or fail to respond--to the sexual harassment and victimization of Black girls at school, implicit bias is inevitably at play through the misperception that Black girls and young women are less worthy of protection because mass media and historical depictions have portrayed them in defeminizing and dehumanizing ways. This Section argues that Congress and those responsible for enforcing Title IX, the civil rights law meant to protect children from sexual harassment at school, must acknowledge and act on the reality of implicit bias against African American girls and young women.

As the law now stands, Title IX does not address the disparate effects experienced by Black girls after being sexually harassed at school and certainly cannot prevent implicit bias from causing misperceptions and poor judgments about students' needs. While youth are more likely today to say that their schools have formal anti-discrimination and sexual harassment grievance policies as required by Title IX, those policies do not help Black girls on a systemic level. Title IX does not prevent sexual harassment in schools or effectively remedy the sexual harassment experienced by African American girls. Teachers rarely invoke Title IX grievance procedures because they often fail to label sexually harassing behavior by its proper name, especially due to implicit biases that Black girls are unworthy or blameworthy. Instead, teachers often see sexual harassment between youth as horseplay, teasing, or bullying, but they do not understand the gendered and racial implications. Finally, current judicial interpretation of Title IX does not allow private plaintiffs to bring disparate impact cases where inadequate responses to the victimization of Black girls cannot be proved to result from intentional racial or gender discrimination.

As noted earlier, most African American girls live in racially segregated, urban neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Many also attend majority-African American schools with “limited resources and difficulties in attracting and retaining the most talented educators.” The experiences of African American girls and young women who attend under-resourced schools have been noticeably absent in the discussion on sexual harassment and school-based violence.

In one school that was multi-racial and multi-ethnic, Vassar College Professor Joy Lei learned through a series of interviews that the students' and teachers' descriptions of many Black girls at the school reflected the stereotypes of African American women that have saturated American media and culture since slavery. They described the Black girls at the school as “being ‘large and loud,’ . . . aggressive and having a lot of ‘attitude.”’ One girl, who self-described herself as quiet, well-groomed, and a good student, felt that the school overlooked her and her friends. She said that school administrators and teachers focused on the Black girls that are “negative, loud-talking, pregnant” and saw girls like herself as nonrepresentative of Black girls as a whole.

In part due to the perceptions of Black girls as aggressive and loud, Zero Tolerance policies and punitive school responses have disproportionately targeted many of them when they have defended themselves or retaliated against their abusers after being sexually harassed. Miller's interviews with African American girls in high school support this conclusion. Recall that the AAUW survey found that Black girls are more likely to confront harassing behavior than any other racial/gender group.

The implicit biases and perceptions of Black girls and young women-- informed by historical misrepresentations; inclusion and exclusion within media; legal, social, and economic disenfranchisement of Black women; and the reality of so many girls living in impoverished and under-resourced places-- fuel and encourage inappropriate responses to school-based sexual victimization perpetrated against Black girls.