With great fanfare, the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education has issued a new report on “equity and educational opportunities,” focusing on racial and ethnic disparities in school disciplinary action. The report claims to be reporting Big News: Black youths are disciplined at higher rates than white, Hispanic, or Asian students.
The mainstream media has made much of DoE’s findings, since they see disparities as inequities — signs of injustice — and, as such, a permanent stain on the American character that only racially blind whites deny. Reminding white Americans of ongoing racial wrongs is a mission to which the press has an undying commitment.
This subject has been studied for decades, with every investigation revealing precisely the same story. Blacks are at one end of the students-in-trouble spectrum, while Asians are at the other. Blacks are about 18 percent of the nation’s school population, but they account for 46 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. Asians are 6 percent of school enrollment, but their expulsion and suspension rates, in sharp contrast, are about 1 percent. Hispanics, interestingly, are about 24 percent of the school population and have discipline rates of about 24 percent, closely in line with their demographic numbers — the only news that contains at least a small element of surprise.
DoE is “not alleging overt discrimination in some or all of these cases,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the Washington Post. Okay, but not much of a concession. Although the department has resisted the temptation to scream racism, it strongly insinuates racial animosity in asserting “fundamental unfairness” in the operation of America’s schools.
Also completely ignored is the obvious possibility that the school problems so many black students experience stem in good part from sharp racial differences in family structure. Is it mere coincidence that the vast majority of Asian students who are so seldom in need of discipline generally grow up in two-parent settings?
These family differences could be called a “fundamental unfairness,” but, if so, it is one that neither the schools nor the federal Department of Education can possibly fix. Does any one have any illusions to the contrary?
— Abigail Thernstrom is vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The question of school discipline is discussed in more detail in her co-authored book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003).