Thursday, March 22, 2012

Parsing the Black-White School Suspension Gap

Discipline is Victory or Arbeit Mach du Frei? (Image from Flickr, by Adam Jones)
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recently released data on suspension rates in the U.S. After surveying 72,000 schools that served roughly 85% of the nation’s students they found that black children represent 35% of all suspensions and 39% of all expulsions, though they comprise only 18% of the student population.

Many are calling this proof that the education system discriminates against children of color (Latino suspension and expulsion rates were also high). Considering how much prejudice and discrimination occur in our society at large, it would be surprising if some of it didn’t trickle down to our schools, as well. One would expect some outright racism to be at play, as well as some less overt racial profiling. Indeed, there are studies indicating that black students are disciplined more severely than white students for similar or lesser infractions.

Yet the problem is more complex and pervasive than simple racism or prejudice by some teachers. For example, if suspension and expulsion rates were broken down by socioeconomic status, one would likely find much higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary actions against lower income children than affluent children. Since higher percentages of black and Latino children are poor, it might be that poverty plays a role in discipline, too, possibly even the primary role.

The Wealth-Behavior Connection
Schools are essentially middle class institutions, run by people who either have middle class backgrounds or who have learned to thrive in a middle class environment through their educational and professional experiences. The expectations, norms and mores of the classroom are consequently the product of middle class culture. Students who come from affluent backgrounds, therefore, generally have these expectations, norms and mores internalized and are more likely to behave in the way expected by their teachers, while working class and poor children sometimes have to learn a disciplinary system and expectations that are substantially different from what they are used to.

Children who grow up in a more authoritarian disciplinary culture, for example, might respond more positively to the demand that they “clean up now!” than to the request, “Would you please clean up?” or the announcement that “it is clean up time.” These last two statements, like “Would you mind closing the door?” are actually middle class commands disguised as friendly requests. Someone who is not used to this roundabout way of speaking might believe they actually have a choice. Noncompliance would therefore not only be reasonable, but within the range of acceptable behaviors. Yet a teacher might see this as defiance or disrespect, leading to disciplinary action against the child.

There are also school policies that disproportionately target youth of color without any racist intent. Sagging pants, for example, is a typical dress code violation, yet it is more common among lower income youth of color than among middle class white boys. The question is, are black boys busted for this while white girls with exposed midriffs and white boys with inappropriate t-shirts are allowed to walk?

It is not just that lower income children have different cultural backgrounds than their teachers. They are also more likely to be behind their affluent peers in academic skills, which makes it harder for them to do the classwork and increases the likelihood of off-task or disruptive behavior. Imagine having to sit still for 30-45 minutes with a book or lecture you cannot comprehend.

While the CRDC data indicates that black children are more likely to be labeled as special needs, it is not clear that this is due to the racism of schools and teachers. It might be due to their socioeconomic status. Poverty increases the chances of that a child will have a learning disability. Poor children, for example, are more likely to suffer low birth weights and malnutrition, which can lead to disabilities. Iron-deficiency anemia, which impairs cognitive ability, is twice as common among poor children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to decreased intelligence. Smoking, which is also significantly higher among poor and working class people, can lead to premature births and low birth weights, which both contribute to poor long-term health, cognitive impairment and learning disabilities.

Schools and teachers should obviously look at their policies and how they are enforced to reduce any institutionalized, deliberate or unintended racist inequities. They also need to do a better job of understanding the cultural backgrounds of their students so that they can better support them. However, as long as our society continues to have large socioeconomic disparities, we will continue to see not only a class-based learning gap, but a class-based discipline gap, as well.


  1. You ask if I'm white and then go onto to attack me for being a white supremacist.

    You ought to wait for a response before launching into such a race-baiting attack. Perhaps I'm a black or brown man who is critical of class.

    Not that that really matters because anyone, of any class or ethnicity, can talk about these issues with authority and accuracy if they are honest and critical.

    To tell someone they didn't earn their position in life is one of the most insulting and denigrating things one can say, on par with accusing people of color or women of not earning their status, but being gifted it through affirmative action.

    On the other hand, you are right in some ways. My family's social class background gave me all sorts of privileges that made it easier for me to get a college degree and obtain a "cushy" middle class job teaching teenagers. My skin color does happen to be white and does allow me to go certain places without being assumed to be a crook, as happened to Trayvon Martin.

    However, had I grown up poor and white, I likely would never have made it to college. I might be slinging drugs on a street corner or working for minimum wages. I'd be much more likely to be in prison, die prematurely from stress-related illnesses, or voting Republican to support my "family" values.

    Lastly, before you go on more tirades, you ought to pay closer attention to what you read and not assume that everyone is out to get you.

    I never said that racism doesn't matter. On the contrary, I gave examples of how it does. I merely pointed out that racism, alone, doesn't fully explain the situation.

    If you want to talk about revisionism, then get over the delusion that white people's racist ideology is the explanation for everything bad that had happened to people of color.

    Supremacist ideology is sometimes the root cause. However, it is often the justification or rationale for policies that facilitate the accumulation of wealth by white (and sometimes nonwhite) people.

    Consider chattel slavery in the U.S., one of the most despicable and well-known racist activities in our history. The driving force was economics, the quest for cheap/free labor so landowners could enrich themselves. Racist ideology convinced whites this was justifiable, indeed holy--but it was not the cause or driving force.

  2. If your arguement that socio-economic status is a major factor in achievement is true, then why is it that poor white children have a higher rate of achievement in schools than their rich black counterparts? If you don't believe me, look at the national center for Educational Statistics at the DOE pages and you will see that white privilege trumps socio-economic status.

  3. Major, not only, factor. Race is a big problem, too, not just because of racist attitudes and policies, but also because simply being black (or nonwhite) vastly increases the amount of stress a person is subjected to on a regular basis. This increases the levels of cortisol in the blood, which increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and it can also impair memory and cognitive development.

    Nevertheless, if you look at the data, class is the overwhelmingly most significant influence. Affluent black kids do better on average than poor white kids. Affluent kids in general do better than poor kids.