The discipline dilemma: Why black kids draw the short straw on suspensions

While this weekend had plenty of noteworthy education news, today I would like to note the passing of a friend of mine, Staley Keith, who made me understand something about schools and racism. He died just after the Center for Civil Rights Remedies released a troubling study on race and school suspensions and would have nodded knowingly had he seen it. Writes Gary Orfield, head of the Civil Rights Project, which published the study,

The findings in this study are deeply disturbing. Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment. The statistics on the use of suspension for African American and special education students are cause for great concern. We already know that African American males are disproportionately placed into categories of special education that are associated with extremely poor outcomes. We now see that these same students face incredibly high rates of suspension. Every dropout costs society hundreds of thousands of dollars over the student’s lifetime in lost income, and removing a large number of students from school undermines a community’s future. In a society that is incarcerating a large number of African American young men, with terrible consequences for their families and communities, these results are simply unacceptable. We can and must do better for young people whose future is at stake.

As Mike pointed out the other day, the report, called “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” “got a ton of press attention” because of its finding that black students are suspended at significantly higher rates than whites. Mike asked, as did many commentators, “does that mean that our public schools—and the people working in them are racist?” As I read the responses to that question, there seemed to be a decidedly defensive attitude, with many people pointing out that the report did not make any conclusions about racism. (Indeed, a search of the report for “racism” and “racist” turn up no hits.)

Racism has many faces. It ranges from mean and nasty name-calling prejudice to nice and neat paternalism.

By a coincidence, I had recently finished up a series of meetings analyzing our school district’s referral and suspension numbers and found the same kinds of numbers as the Civil Rights researchers found: Blacks were disciplined (both referrals and suspensions) much more frequently than their white peers. And as I know my little district (1900 kids, 30 percent black, 60 percent free and reduced lunch) I would have to answer Mike’s question in the affirmative. Of course, the caveat is this: Racism has many faces. It ranges from mean and nasty name-calling prejudice to nice and neat paternalism. More on that below.

Which brings me to Staley, who was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1942, and grew up, as he put it with a smile, “in Jesse country—and I don’t mean Jesse Jackson.” Anyone who grew up in the fifties and sixties knew he meant Jesse Helms, a strident segregationist and five-term United States Senator. I first wrote about Staley last January, in a Martin Luther King holiday essay called a “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  As Staley told it, every morning he walked to his all-black school in Raleigh, passing the all-white school, deflecting a hail of racial obscenities and rocks from the white kids as he went. Then one morning, Staley would say, just after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), he woke up to the news that North Carolina schools had to be integrated. And Staley recalled his first thought, “We gotta go to school with these m-----r f------rs.”

This is a blunt description of American school integration. Even forgetting the terrible race riots of the sixties and seventies, the post-Brown era has not been an especially good one for African-Americans (see Whitney Tilson’s “A Right Denied”). But it was a problem foreseen by black leaders. As I wrote in a 2010 post, “A misplaced race card,” both W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr., were skeptical of integration in education—for reasons that have become painfully clear to several generations of African-American children. This is Du Bois in 1934:

I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate nitwits as a plea for segregated Negro schools. It is not. It is saying in plain English that a separate Negro school where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers whose sole claim to superiority is the ability to kick niggers when they are down.

You don’t hear that kind of talk in our post-Brown politically correct era. Well, not exactly. See Lisa Delpit’s new book, “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children and Mark Bauerlein’s review of it. Writes Bauerlein of Delpit’s argument,

Low performance begins with American racism. Our society, Delpit writes, has a “deeply ingrained bias of equating blackness with inferiority,” and it “seems always ready to identify African Americans with almost all negative behaviors.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., was less harsh but no less worried about the downside for blacks in integrated schools. In the late-fifties, as I wrote in my “misplaced race card” post, King said this:

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel...I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual, the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.

This brings us back to the question of racism and student discipline.  A couple of years ago, after a report on suspensions by the Southern Poverty Law Center I suggested that our schools were in “discipline disarray” in general (think: bullying, zero tolerance, codes of conduct). But just as our curricular woes these last fifty years have had an enormously disproportionate and negative impact on blacks (think: achievement gap), so it is not surprising to see the same lopsided results for suspensions. As Du Bois said, “theoretically, the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.”

And therein is the beginning of the answer to Mike’s question.

As I wrote earlier this year the grand racial integration scheme coincided with the final victory of the Progressive Era, which had given up on teaching children “mere facts.” They entered schools that had given up on Education, with a capital E. If you add to this mix the zero-tolerance zeitgeist of the last twenty-plus years you get a perfect storm of dis-education for poor blacks. Not only did they have to go to school with people who didn’t much like them, but they were “educated” in a “child-centered” classroom in which well-intentioned teachers (and some not-so-intentioned) let them do their own thing. We have had countless “diversity training” workshops in our district, including lessons for our white teachers about how “black boys learn.” None of it works because the teachers—and their trainers—don’t appreciate the fact that the only currency accepted on the way out of the ghetto is knowledge. Pats on the head, blue ribbons, and self-esteem courses do not translate into good SAT scores. 

Poor black kids—and poor white kids, for that matter—come to school far behind in their knowledge base and vocabulary (contrary to popular belief they do not come to school “not ready to learn”). If that vocabulary gap is not closed—and it can be closed—by third grade these kids are “behind” in school and acting out. It’s downhill from there, as the Civil Rights Project report finds. Where’s the racism? Rather, it's in the curriculum that they are not being taught.

My friend Staley finished high school in a newly integrated school, where he was a football star. He went to North Carolina Central University, majoring in Physical Education and Health—and football. Rather than accept offers from Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, however, Staley decided to become a teacher. And that’s what he did, for the next thirty-some years. While much of that work was done teaching black youth in “training schools” and prisons, where I’m sure he was an inspiration, another part of Staley’s legacy was educating whites to the needs of African-Americans: an Education.

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