Are Black Students Unruly? Or is America Just Racist?

Our schools are suspending or expelling a tremendous number of black students, and it begins as early as preschool. It needs to end.

Diyosa Carter/Getty

A few years ago, a Georgia elementary school made national news after a student—kindergartner Salecia Johnson—was arrested for throwing a temper tantrum in class. Here’s CNN on the incident:

According to their report, when the officer arrived, he observed kindergartner Salecia Johnson on the floor of the principal’s office screaming and crying.

The officer stated in the report that he noticed damage to school property and tried numerous times to calm the girl, who eventually “pulled away and began actively resisting and fighting with me.”

“The child was then placed in handcuffs for her safety and the officer proceeded to bring her down to the police station,” said Chief Dray Swicord.

The six-year-old was charged as a juvenile with simple battery and criminal damage to property, though this was dropped on account of her age. For as much as this was outrageous, it also wasn’t that unique. These events are far more common than you think.

According to data released today by the Department of Education, black students are expelled at three times the rate of white students. This extends all the way down to the youngest kids; as the New York Timesreports, “While black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, close to half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are African-American.”

This is just another reminder that blacks face a huge disparity in school discipline. In 2012, for instance the Department of Education found that blacks accounted for 35 percent of students suspended at least once, and 39 percent of all expulsions. This, despite the fact that African Americans are just 18 percent of the total student population.

And of course, there are particular places where the rates of suspension and expulsion are insane. Of the students suspended under zero tolerance policies in New Orleans in 2009, for instance, all of them were black.

Imagine two third graders—one white, one black. They’re both poor performers and they’re both disruptive in class. But whereas James, the white student, is referred to in-school counseling and receives a diagnosis (he has a learning disability), Jameis—his black counterpart—is pulled into remedial classes after his first two report cards of the year, where he stays.

By the time they reach eighth grade, James is performing on grade level, while Jameis is far behind, with worsening behavior. A scuffle with a teacher results in an arrest and expulsion, and Jameis is sent to juvenile detention for assault charges. He’s released after three years, but doesn’t return to school. Instead, a few months later, he ends up in court for drug possession—he had a few joints and $20 worth of weed on his person when he was stopped by police in front of a convenience store. For that, he’s given five years in an adult prison.

That might be a little heavy-handed as far as fictional scenarios go, but it’s not outlandish. Compared to their white counterparts, black boys are three times more likely to be placed in remedial or “problem” classes, as opposed to receiving counseling or a diagnosis. School-related arrests are depressingly common, and in 70 percent of cases, they involve black or Latino students. The same goes for referrals to law enforcement—in one Mississippi school district, for example, 33 out of every 1,000 students have been arrested or referred to a juvenile detention center, the vast majority of whom were black.

This has far-reaching consequences. Suspensions lead to more absences, as students become disconnected from the school. In one study of 180,000 Florida students, researchers found that just one suspension in ninth grade can drastically reduce a student’s chance of graduating in four years. What’s more—compared to their white peers—black teenagers are more likely to be stopped by the police and arrested for drug possession, despite similar rates of drug use.

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When you put all of this together, you have a world where African American youth—boys and girls—have vastly higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.

You might be inclined to see this as evidence of bad behavior by African American students. But there’s no evidence that African Americans are worst behaved than their white counterparts. Indeed, notes Al Jazeera America, “the disparity in punishment can’t be explained by more frequent or serious infractions by minority students.” To wit, according to the available evidence, the vast majority of suspensions are for minor infractions, like lateness or violation of the dress code. Which is to say that this isn’t about black student’s behavior—it’s about racism.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recall a study I wrote about last week, which looked at perceptions of African American boys and young men. What researchers found is that black children aren’t percieved as such; in the survey, respondents overestimated the age of black boys by more than four-and-a-half years, so that when participants saw a 14-year-old, they perceived him as an 18 to 19-year-old adult. The effect of this was to deny the boys the presumption of innocence, since—after all—adults are responsible for their actions.

In other words, we have a status quo that’s nearly designed to deliver the worst outcomes to African American students. Not only are they vastly more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods and attend disadvantaged schools, but their misbehavior works to confirm our biases—it meshes with our existing stereotypes about the aggression and criminality of black youth.

On any story about racial disparities in crime or school discipline, you have predictable comments about how it’s deserved—how blacks have earned their status at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. These trends—this history—is invisible to the ordinary eye. Hell, a good deal of it is invisible to the more focused eyes of informed observers.

But that’s how racism works. It blinds us to its presence, even as it works to obscure our reality and provide logical explanations for illogical facts. It’s how someone can look at the facts of wide disadvantage and disparity, and conclude—with a straight face—that the problem is a lack of “personal responsibility.”

Sure. Whatever you say.