Politically correct myths about race and student misbehavior shackle teachers

Politically correct myths about race and student misbehavior shackle teachers

School officials sometimes refuse to suspend violent or disruptive students just because they are black, and school administrators believe that “too many” black students have already been suspended compared to the number of whites.

Former school official Edmund Janko describes how he himself did this, to achieve a veiled racial quota, in a City Journal article titled, “It Still Leaves a Bad Taste.” In response to pressure from the federal Office for Civil Rights, his school adopted racially-discriminatory “dual systems of justice” for black and white students.

For example, obscenities directed at a teacher would mean, in cases involving minority students, a rebuke from the dean and a notation on the record or a letter home rather than a suspension. For cases in which white students had committed infractions, it meant zero tolerance.

His school did this in response to a federal letter “pointing out that we had suspended black students far out of proportion to their numbers in our student population,” even though the letter had not explicitly threatened to punish the school for that.

The school hadn’t been discriminating against blacks. And Janko himself “hadn’t recommended suspension for anyone who didn’t richly deserve it.” But to ensure that the federal government would stay off their back, Janko and his colleagues began setting lower standards of behavior for blacks, and harshly punishing white first-time offenders.

Janko’s school was not alone in adopting racial double standards. In 2014, the Minneapolis public schools imposed an explicit racial quota in school suspensions, to reduce the suspension rate of black and brown students to white levels by 2018. Black and brown students are to be treated differently, and “every suspension of a black or brown student will be reviewed by the superintendent’s leadership team,” unlike suspensions of white students.

Many schools elsewhere in the country also have informal quotas restricting the suspension of black students by principals or have adopted “targeted reductions” in suspensions for blacks. A well-known education blogger who used to teach on the East Coast was told during the Obama administration not to send three specific students (all black) to the principal’s office even if they constantly misbehaved, since this could create problems for the principal if he suspended them.

This racial double standard in favor of blacks is the result of schools and civil-rights officials refusing to recognize an indisputable fact: that a higher percentage of blacks misbehave than whites do.

School officials are incorrectly told that there are no racial differences in misbehavior rates. This false claim ignores real-world data showing a vastly higher black crime rate and big differences in rates of misbehavior in school.

It is so false that it has been rejected by the courts, including by even liberal judges and a lopsided majority on the Supreme Court. But false though it may be, the claim that black students don’t misbehave at a higher rate is regularly parroted in education schools, publications aimed at teachers, and literature from civil-rights officials.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights reportedly is sending letters to school districts in Minnesota warning them about their failure to suspend black and brown students at the same rate as white students (even though requiring an equal suspension rate for all groups would be considered an illegal quota by the courts).

This refusal to recognize reality is displayed in Education Week’s coverage Friday of criticism of the Obama administration’s controversial January 8, 2014 “Dear Colleague” Letter on school discipline.

That letter told schools to expect a federal investigation when they suspend blacks at a higher rate than whites. Its “guidance” told schools that even when a school applies its rules in an “evenhanded,” “neutral” fashion to blacks and whites alike, the school may still have to change its policies if more blacks are suspended than whites due simply to more blacks violating the rules — unless the school can prove to the federal government’s satisfaction that changing its policies (like imposing lesser penalties) would undermine school safety. Critics of the letter (including at least four black columnists) argued that it improperly put pressure on schools to adopt veiled racial quotas in school discipline.

Defenders of that letter countered by arguing that blacks don’t misbehave more — and when they do, it’s the school’s fault for suspending them rather than taking the effort to be more understanding of the “root cause” of their misbehavior. (These logically inconsistent arguments make me wonder if they really believe their obviously false claim that blacks behave the same).

Education Week quoted “Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of the Advancement Project’s national office.” She wrote that critics of the letter were concerned with “protecting the comfort of adults [teachers], not improving the safety of school communities. It is a well-established fact that Black and Brown students behave no worse than their white counterparts. It’s simply easier for adults to remove Black and Brown students from the classroom, than build community within their schools, develop relationships and address the root cause of a student’s behavior. Schools must do the hard part of implementing restorative justice, not pushing students out of the classroom.”

But if it’s “simply easier for adults to remove” a “black or brown” student “from the classroom” rather than trying to be more understanding based on “the root cause of” that “student’s behavior,” that’s because that student did in fact misbehave. And tolerating such misbehavior can be bad for the other students, including black students.

As the black economist Thomas Sowell, a critic of the Obama administration’s letter, notes:

Letting kids who are behavior problems in schools grow up to become hoodlums and then criminals is no favor to them or to the black community. Moreover, it takes no more than a small fraction of troublemakers in a class to make it impossible to give that class a decent education. And for many poor people, whether black or white, education is their one big chance to escape poverty.

Dianis’s claim that black students “behave no worse than their white counterparts” is unfortunately wrong. A recent study shows that black students are suspended at a higher rate precisely because they misbehave in school at a higher rate. [See John Paul Wright, Mark Alden Morgan, Michelle A. Coyne, Kevin M. Beaver, & J.C. Barnes, “Prior problem behavior accounts for the racial gap in school suspensions,” Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 42, issue 3, May-June 2014, Pages 257-266].

Federal crime statistics prove misbehavior rates aren’t the same for different ethnic and racial groups. 51.1% of all Americans charged with murder or manslaughter were black, as of 2015, even though only about one eighth of the U.S. population is black. [See U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015 Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States, Table 43A, Arrests by Race, 2015]. The murder rate is eight times as high for blacks as for non-Hispanic whites.

As Katherine Kersten noted in 2016 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, black students’ discipline rate is higher than other students’ because, on average, they misbehave more. In fact, a major 2014 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that the racial gap in suspensions is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.”

That problem behavior can manifest itself in other ways. Nationally, for example, young black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at 10 times the rate of white and Hispanics of the same ages combined.

Why such a gap? A primary reason is likely dramatic differences in family structure. Figures for St. Paul are not available, but nationally, 71% of black children are born out of wedlock — with the rate much higher in many inner cities — while the rate for whites is 29%. Research reveals that children from fatherless families are far more likely than others to engage in many kinds of antisocial behavior.

Higher rates of misconduct among black students are not surprising, since they are more likely to come from a poor or single-parent family, factors correlated with higher rates of misbehavior. The vast majority of juvenile delinquents and young criminals come from single-parent households, where firm discipline is often missing.

A 2007 government report found that serious “discipline problems” were much more common in schools with many poor kids than in schools with few kids in poverty, and frequent “verbal abuse of teachers” occurred at nearly five times the rate in those schools. (Rachel Dinkes, et al., Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2007 (2007), pg. 26).

As the Brookings Institution observed:

[B]lack students are also more likely to come from family backgrounds associated with school behavior problems; for example, children ages 12–17 that come from single-parent families are at least twice as likely to be suspended as children from two-parent families. (Tom Loveless, The 2017 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?, March 2017, at pp. 30-31).

Given this reality, courts have rejected arguments that higher black suspension rates reflect anything other than black students’ own higher rate of misbehaving. One federal appeals court rejected the “assumption ‘that “undiscipline” or misbehavior is a randomly distributed characteristic among racial groups,” recognizing that higher black suspension rates reflect student misbehavior, not racism by teachers or principals. (Coalition to Save Our Children v. State Board of Education, 90 F.3d 752, 775 (3d Cir. 1996)).

Another federal appeals court rejected the argument that statistics showing that “sixty-sex percent” of students disciplined were black showed racism, saying that this “‘disparity does not, by itself, constitute discrimination,’” and provided “no evidence” that the school district “targets African-American students for discipline.” (Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 269 F.3d 305, 332 (4th Cir. 2001) (en banc)).

Similarly, yet another federal appeals court struck down a desegregation provision forbidding a “school district to refer a higher percentage of minority students than of white students for discipline unless the district purges all ‘subjective’ criteria from its disciplinary code.” It ruled that such a provision would result in “systematically underpunishing the guilty” in certain racial groups, and that that this requirement was an illegal racial quota. (People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., 111 F.3d 528, 538 (7th Cir. 1997)).

The Supreme Court has likewise rejected the “presumption that people of all races commit all types of crimes” at the same rate, which is “contradicted by” reality. It did so in a 8-to-1 Supreme Court ruling joined in even by most of the Supreme Court’s liberal justices, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (See United States v. Armstrong, 517 U.S. 456 (1996)).

Given all these court rulings and all this real-world data that the black crime rate is higher than the white crime rate, you would think that no one would deny that black students disbehave more often than their white peers. The higher black crime rate is as undeniable as the fact that 2+2=4. As the black economist Thomas Sowell observed, “There is not the slightest reason to expect black males to commit the same number of offenses as Asian females.”

And yet, some people try to deny it. Education Week quoted one example:

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also called on the Education Department to keep the 2014 guidance intact.

“Research shows that students of color do not misbehave more than their white peers, but are often disciplined for subjective infractions, such as disrespect of authority,” the organization wrote in a statement.

Yes, black students do misbehave more often. The shoddy educational research purporting to show the contrary actually shows nothing of the kind (see this link and this link and this link, for example). Claims that blacks are disproportionately disciplined for subjective offenses are both false, and based on misclassification of offenses as subjective or offensive. As a 2017 white paper by education-law experts pointed this out:

A federal appeals court noted that subjectivity is not the reason blacks are suspended at higher rates than whites [in Coalition to Save Our Children v. State Bd. of Educ. (1996)]. Indeed, blacks are suspended at even higher rates for “very objective” offenses than “subjective” ones.23 This finding belies the claims of academics like Russell Skiba…24 who claims that blacks are more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for “subjective” offenses, while whites are more likely to be sent for “objective” offenses. Skiba reached this dubious conclusion by arbitrarily labeling vague offenses as “objective” when they were often committed by whites (such as “obscene language”), and objectively harmful offenses as “subjective” when they were committed heavily by blacks (such as “threats”).25

Moreover, blacks’ higher arrest and conviction rates reflect higher crime rates among blacks, not racism in the criminal justice system. Black victims themselves tend to identify their assailants as black.

As City Journal has noted:

The race of criminals reported by crime victims matches arrest data. As long ago as 1978, a study of robbery and aggravated assault in eight cities found parity between the race of assailants in victim identifications and in arrests — a finding replicated many times since, across a range of crimes. No one has ever come up with a plausible argument as to why crime victims would be biased in their reports.

For example, 43.7% of all rapists in state prisons were black, according to a 1997 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though blacks are only 13% of the general population. [See Lawrence A. Greenfeld, Statistician, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders (Feb. 1997) (NCJ-163392)]. The people they raped were disproportionately other black people who reported the offense, eliminating racial bias as a factor in reporting.

Recent studies suggest that curbing suspension of black students harms other innocent black students. Doing so can harm African-Americans, who are often victims of black-on-black violence.

Professor Joshua Kinsler similarly found that “in public schools with discipline problems, it hurts those innocent African American children academically to keep disruptive students in the classroom,” and “cutting out-of-school suspensions in those schools widens the black-white academic achievement gap.” When New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio sharply curbed suspensions, “schools where more than 90% of students were minorities experienced the worst” effects on school safety.

As education researcher Max Eden points out in the New York Post:

There is … remarkably little evidence that suspensions harm students. In fact, perhaps the most rigorous study, by University of Arkansas researchers, found a small academic benefit to suspensions, and a study by a University of Georgia professor found that efforts to decrease the racial-suspension gap actually increase the racial achievement gap.

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle is a retired attorney and author, who writes about politics.


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