On Racial Bias in School Discipline

So this article came up in my Facebook feed, and here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

Ideally, this should be the standard: a person guilty of an infraction should be given the same degree of punishment as another person committing the same infraction.
This article claims: “Black students continue to be disciplined at school more often and more harshly than their white peers, often for similar infractions.”

I will try to outline the important points of the article below:

An Obama era guidance in 2014 urged schools to examine the disproportionate rates at which black students were being punished.  The guidance was established to respond to data that showed that in 2012, black students were suspended at 3x the rate of their white peers.

The guidance informed schools that wide racial disparities could signal discriminatory practices that could result in a federal investigation and loss of federal funding. It also suggested a number of strategies for managing nonviolent behavior without resorting to kicking students out of school.

The Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) found that black students were the only race in which both boys and girls were disproportionately disciplined across six disciplinary actions examined, which included corporal punishment, in- and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school-related arrests.

The agency found that black students were suspended more often than their white peers in schools of all poverty levels. In the most affluent schools, 7.5 percent of black boys had been given out-of-school suspensions, while 1.8 percent of white boys had.
This finding challenges a common claim that poverty, more than race, may be driving disproportionate rates of disciplinary actions.

Other research shows that even black boys raised in rich neighborhoods were likely to earn less than their white peers. This finding further shows that poverty is not explaining the disparities. The article concludes that there’s a racial discrimination problem, and that statement can no longer be disputed.

The G.A.O.’s findings apparently underscore the need to strengthen the guidance, not rescind it as some have recommended.

Critics state that the report’s scope was too narrow to draw broad conclusions.  They believe that discipline reform is being applied unevenly and that this study does not answer whether there are some specific districts and schools that are responding particularly poorly to this. The study also does not answer whether racial bias accounted for all the disparities.

Basically, the article believes that there is a racial bias in school discipline, and I believe the article could have done a better job in defining “racial bias” better.

When people hear “racial bias,” they might imagine that school officials are going out of their way to accuse an innocent black student of school offense and thus they are punished unjustly.  However this may not be the case.

It is important to keep in mind that black students are justly accused and disciplined for offenses that they actually did commit.  So the racial makeup of people being disciplined should be representative of the racial makeup of people who commit an offense.

However, with that said, we do see disproportionately more black students disciplined than white students.

The all important question is “Why?”

Is it because prejudice causes more black students than white students to be convicted of offenses that they did not commit?
Is it because, on average, a black student is more likely to commit a school infraction than a white student and therefore more likely to be disciplined for what they’ve done?

It is true that we have individuals, who happen to be black, making bad choices for which they have to deal with the consequences.

The laws are fair and just on paper. But the system does not deliver fair and just results. After all, why do individual black students deserve more frequent and harsher disciplines relative to other races?  It is appropriate that these students are punished for their infractions, but should not the severity of their punishment fit the severity of their infraction?  Do their infractions warrant more severe punishments than those of their lighter skinned peers for essentially the same infraction?

If black student infraction rates justify high discipline rates, what is the cause of the higher infraction rate?

Personally I feel that a societal argument, namely culture, best explains the reason for this high black student infraction rate.  However that culture is heavily influenced by a past history of institutionalized racism in America. Here I define racism as the ideology that believed some races are intellectually and morally superior to other races because of genetics.

When you codify such a sinful idea into law, it will take time to undo the consequences of that sin in the generations after the removal of those laws.

We had institutionalized racism and oppression from the birth of this country to the mid 1960s when Jim Crow laws still enforced the idea of racial segregation. That is quite a long period of racism and oppression, and certainly such a long period will still have lasting effects on our society in one way or another. If those in power enslave a given race, prevent them from getting education, break up their families, confiscate their belongings, deny them the vote, subject them to a post slavery period where for generations they are forbidden by law from attending the best schools and all other rights afforded the majority, these laws will have lasting effects.

Institutionalized racism placed our neighbors in bad positions.
Our legislation has gradually changed to give our neighbors civil rights.
But the legacy of institutionalized racism still exists.

Poverty and black culture in the US is in large part created by this history of oppression.
When white people actively oppressed black people for such a long period of time, it should not be surprising to see that black individuals will possess a culture of rebellion and dissent that will be seen by the majority as punishable offenses.  In other words, sometimes a people group will engage in rebellious behavior precisely because they were so overly regulated and restricted that they had to rebel just to survive.

Say there was a law that forbid you from breathing.  The mere act of breathing to continue living would make you a rebel.  Essentially, your very existence is considered a crime.  The fault is not because of the individual but because of a horrible law and institution.  Now what happened to our black neighbors is not to that extreme, but the laws that governed them back in the day certainly nearly approached that level.  Racism is an ideology that practically believed that individuals of African descent were a crime of nature.

Now that the restrictions are loosened, it will take time for the current culture to adapt to the new freedom and use the freedom responsibly.   Now that does not morally excuse the misbehavior of black individuals, but it does caution us to consider to do what we can to reverse the lasting effects of institutionalized racism.  Racism may no longer be institutionalized, but the effects of that ideology are still felt in our society.

The effects manifest itself in black culture, which may, on average, be resistant to authority precisely because that authority was once used to oppress them.  If there was such bad blood between African Americans and authority figures such as law enforcement officers and judges, it will take time to gain that trust back.  So if black students engage in infractions that are punishable by the school, it is likely because they lived in a society that was born and raised in a context of rebellion under an oppressive regime.

The effects of institutionalized racism are also seen in the facts that black citizens are generally associated with poverty, less education, and more crime.  These socioeconomic realities came about because of an ideology that believed that black Americans were inferior to their neighbors by genetics.  In other words, a socioeconomic reality produced the same results predicted by an ideology that operated on the basis of genetics.

Racism is a self-reinforcing ideology.
-When employers and federal administrators think people with dark skin, by genetics, will be poor, less intelligent, and violent, then they are not likely to invest resources into them.
-With the lack of resources, people of color will end up and continue to be poor, less intelligent, and violent.
-The continued state of being poor, less intelligence, and violence becomes justification for continued refusal to invest resources into them.

Even when the racism, with its emphasis on genetics, is removed from legislation, the effects of it and the outcome can still look the same as before.
-Employers and federal administrators see that people of color are poor, less intelligent, and violent, and so they are not likely to invest resources into them. Not by genetics, but because that is the current socioeconomic reality.
-With the lack of resources, people of color continue to remain poor, less intelligent, and violent.
-The continued state of being poor, less intelligence, and violence remains justification for continued refusal to invest resources.

The difference is very subtle but the outcome becomes the same.  Racism believed that people with dark skin were, by genetics, intellectually inferior to people of lighter skin.  Racism as an ideology may be repealed, but its effects is still felt as a potential employer still associate people with dark skin with higher crime rates and low education, not because of genetics but because of socioeconomic factors.

So institutionalized racism operated on a basis of genetics.
The legacy of racism operates on a basis of socioeconomic factors.

So when we are saying “racial bias,” the phrase should not be taken to mean that school officials are going out of their way to accuse an innocent black student of a school offense and thus they are punished unjustly.  Rather the phrase should be taken to mean that there is a high black discipline rate in a response to a high black infraction rate that stems from an incomplete reversal of the lasting effects of institutionalized racism.

School officials are not punishing black students on the basis of their genetics, but they are punishing them more often than their white peers because that appears to be the socioeconomic reality.  I will give the school officials the benefit of the doubt and assume that they punish black students justly for things that are legitimately considered misdemeanors.  However, this article claims that they are punishing them more severely than their lighter skinned peers for the same infraction.  I agree that such a disparity deserves further investigation. I am also interested in further investigating the reasons why black students in even affluent neighborhoods are still punished at higher frequencies than their white peers.

Ultimately the high black discipline rate is a symptom of a deeper problem.  America may have done away with racism as an institution, but the effects of its history still remains, and it will take this country some time to sufficiently reverse the legacy left behind by the generations of lawmakers who came before us.

Institutionalized racism actively restricted people from obtaining the opportunities they need to thrive and prosper in our society.  Personally I wish we could help rebuild the neighborhoods and inner-city regions that were left destitute by lawmakers who refused to invest in our neighbors.  Institutionalized racism left our neighbors without a strong foundation to launch their productive careers, and we should consider what we can do to help them rebuild.

In order to fix this problem, we need to change the outside world and system, just enough to facilitate our neighbors’ abilities to participate in the greater society, and at the same time, emphasize personal accountability, hard work and entrepreneurship. Both aspects need to happen.

To conclude:
So we see there is a disproportionate rate at which black students are punished in school.
-Is it because of racial bias, in the sense that school officials are punishing black students on the basis of their genetics? I believe for the most part, this is not the case, as officials are punishing black students more often than their white peers because these students misbehave more often.
– However, I am interested in seeing why black students are punished more severely than their white peers for the same infraction. If this is truly the case, that would be an example of an injustice, that may involve racial bias, which needs correction. School discipline reform would be merited in this case.
-I am more interested in preventative measures.  Why are black students misbehaving more often, or at least engaging in behaviors that the school deems worthy of punishment?  I feel that such behaviors come from a culture of a distrust of authority that was born out of a long history of authority that was misused to oppress an entire people group.  A proposed solution in this case is to find ways to rebuild that trust and faith.  So I do not simply seek school discipline reform, but I want to find the root cause of the student misbehavior and find appropriate solutions.
-I want to see reduced suspensions, but not from refusing to suspend students when they commit offenses that deserve suspension, but by helping them to pursue upstanding behavior, and finding out why they would engage in bad behavior in the first place.

 

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