If You're Justifying Higher Suspension Rates for Black Kids Then You're Not Facing Up to Racism in America

Apr 11, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Zachary Wright 

Many people of privilege, myself included, have a hard time looking in the mirror and confronting their own racism. They will do anything to justify it. Case in point: conservative thinker Heather Mac Donald who in her book “The War On Cops” sought to debunk the argument that racism exists in the criminal justice system. Thus it is unsurprising that, despite overwhelming evidence that Black students are suspended at three to four times the rate of their White peers and corresponding evidence that Black students are incarcerated at rates five times higher than Whites, Mac Donald insists the problem isn’t racial bias. Mac Donald isn’t alone. Many people argue that Black students misbehave more than White students, and thus higher discipline rates are justified. They further argue that 2014 Obama-era guidance promoting restorative justice programs is doing more damage than good. It is the widespread nature of these misunderstandings that is so troubling. It is important to see that the statistics Mac Donald cites in an effort to explain away racial bias in both the criminal justice system as well as classroom disciplinary practices, actually highlight the systemic racism and implicit bias rampant in our society.

Critical Differences But Same Standards

Perhaps the most troubling of Mac Donald’s assertions is that the disciplinary data shows that predominantly White schools are peaceful, while schools that are predominantly Black are out of control, thereby proving the Obama-era initiative of disciplinary reform is not only misguided, but dangerous. This is untrue. Putting aside the dangerously racial rhetoric at play in Mac Donald’s understanding of the data, there is also a more complete way of understanding the meaning of the data upon which her arguments depend. [pullquote position="right"]It is no secret that America’s schools remain segregated.[/pullquote] Take simply the schools in my surrounding environs of southeastern Pennsylvania. Urban schools are generally majority minority, that is the majority of students are non-White. Indeed the school in which I teach is essentially 100 percent Black. Juxtapose this against suburban schools. A suburban school district directly west of Philadelphia sees schools that are 79 percent White. These numbers mean something. Schools that serve majority students of color are likely to encounter higher levels of poverty while schools that serve majority White students often exist within middle to upper class suburbs. Yet Mac Donald overlooks how our deeply segregated school systems that link property values to school funding mean students living in poverty often learn in crumbling school buildings while rich suburban students have gleaming, modernized school campuses. Not only that, but Mac Donald’s analysis also fails to consider what any social worker knows: Poverty for children means trauma. There is also an undeniable link between poverty and trauma, particularly for children. When a young person has endured trauma, they often struggle to learn in a classroom. When a student struggles to learn, they often struggle interpersonally as well, thus increasing the likelihood of disciplinary incidents. But whereas many teachers see traumatized young people in need of support, Mac Donald sees criminals in need of harsh discipline. Mac Donald sees numbers that supposedly show higher disciplinary incidents in schools with majority minority populations and makes an assumption that is as wrong as it is lazy. Based on Mac Donald’s understanding of the data, White kids are all civilized, law abiding students eager to earn their graduation gowns, while Black kids are thugs ready to be fitted for prison jumpsuits. If Mac Donald is correct that students in schools with majority minority populations are more likely to misbehave, and again that is by no means a fact, then the first step towards a solution is not criminalizing children, but becoming trauma-informed practitioners who use restorative practices to reduce suspensions and to help traumatized young Black students succeed in classrooms.

Bemoaning The Breakdown of the Black Family While Wielding The Wrecking Ball

The so-called “breakdown of the Black family” is, alongside Black-on-Black crime, a favorite trope of those who deny the reality that racial oppression is deeply woven into American culture. Mac Donald calls upon this tactic to essentially argue that because many Black kids don’t have two parents in the home, they are more prone to behavior problems. Whether this is actually true is unclear, but even if it is true, there is a problem with Mac Donald herself citing it as an explanation for why Black students are disciplined more harshly than their White peers. As made clear in her book “The War On Cops,” Mac Donald is a major proponent of aggressive policing practices that have contributed to the decimation of Black families across the country. She strongly advocates for racial profiling, for police to stop and frisk individuals who look suspicious, labeling such practices as proactive. It is no secret that such practices result in disproportionate numbers of “suspicious” Black men being randomly stopped by police. It is therefore bizarre that someone who calls for a tightening of the very practices that have resulted in the disproportionate mass incarceration of Black men would then bemoan the dissolution of the Black family unit. It is akin to an arsonist blaming the building for going up in flames. If Mac Donald is correct that young people from single-parent households have higher rates of disciplinary incidents, which is by no means a given, then a logical first step would be to cease the systems of mass incarceration that break the family in the first place.

Channeling Institutional Racism While Ignoring Facts

Mac Donald’s misguided misunderstanding of school disciplinary disparities begin to evoke centuries of institutional racism justifying ever-harsher punishment of Blacks, as she defaults to words like ‘insubordination,’ ‘defiance,’ and ‘disobedience.’ For all of Mac Donald’s apparent desire to find truth, here a few facts her analysis chose to ignore:
  • There is no proven increase in school violence since the Obama discipline guidance was released in 2014.
  • There is no documented increase in civil rights investigations as a result of the “disparate impact” language included in the guidance.
  • There are zero cases of federal funds being withdrawn based on a school’s violations of a student’s civil rights due to disciplinary practices.
  • On the positive side, school suspensions nationwide are down by 20 percent in recent years, thanks to the heroic efforts of educators and administrators all across America to find constructive alternatives to school suspensions and expulsions.
Sadly, Mac Donald won’t consider any of these facts because that would require her to admit something she just can’t face—racism in America.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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