Politics & Policy

Discipline Disparities

Fourteen-year-old Kahton Anderson illustrates what’s wrong with the racism meme.

Last week I invoked the case of a 14-year-old Brooklyn boy arrested for shooting another teenager, in making the claim that behavioral differences, not racism, drive the disparity between black and white student suspensions. The Obama administration had released its latest school-discipline data on March 21, showing that black students are suspended at three times the rate of white students. The civil-rights industry predictably greeted this information as yet more proof that schools are biased against black students. The day before the federal data were published, eighth-grader Kahton Anderson had opened fire on a Brooklyn bus when several members of a rival “crew” (a localized mini-gang) got on; an innocent 39-year-old father was fatally shot in the head.

Anderson was relevant to the school-discipline debate as an emblem of the pathological urban culture that is manifested both in the black crime rate and in classroom misbehavior. “The chance,” I wrote last week, that Anderson was “a model pupil, quietly paying attention in class and not disturbing his fellow students and teacher, was close to zero.” That statement proved prescient. A fuller picture of Anderson’s school behavior is now in. It is exactly what one would expect.

According to the New York Times, Anderson

was frequently in trouble. Sometimes it was for violating the school’s uniform code or disrespectful chatter in class. . . . Sometimes it was worse: He had a sealed arrest from 2011, and often, high-school-age members of a crew students knew as “R&B” or “RB’z” — the initials stand for “Rich Boys” — loitered outside the school, waiting to fight him.

About three weeks after he got into a fight near school last year, he was transferred to Elijah Stroud Middle School in Crown Heights. . . .

But he seemed to do no better at Elijah Stroud, where he had been suspended from the early fall until very recently . . . Under Education Department policy, only students with serious infractions, such as injuring or trying to injure other students or teachers, can be suspended for more than 10 days.

All fall and winter, he had a more consuming preoccupation than school or even basketball: his crew’s escalating war with a rival group of teenage boys.

Anderson is a case study in everything that the civil-rights complex assiduously denies. Naturally, he was raised by a single mother. Despite the inevitable excuse that his criminality is the result of poverty, he has a taste for designer clothing, replenishing his supply of Air Jordans and Reeboks on a frequent, sometimes monthly, basis. And Anderson is just the tip of the iceberg. He is surrounded by numerous other Kahton Andersons, including the fellow members of his crew, the Stack Money Goons, dedicated to obtaining money by any means available; the members of the Goons’ rival crew, the Twan Family, named in honor of a 17-year-old who was fatally shot while robbing an off-duty police officer; and members of dozens of other crews and gangs that form in inner-city neighborhoods in the absence of married fathers raising their children. The bus shooting was hardly unusual. Gunfire among these warring crews is routine; one crew member was shot to death last July. And as in Kahton’s case, the lack of impulse control that results in such mindless violence on the streets unavoidably shows up in the classroom as well. It defies common sense that a group with such high rates of lawlessness outside school would display model behavior inside school. Multiply Anderson’s homicide several-hundred-fold, and you get the nearly ten to one disparity between the murder rate among 14- to 17-year-old black males and that of their white and Hispanic male peers combined. Multiply his classroom infractions several-hundred-thousand-fold, and you get the three-to-one suspension disparity that so agitates the civil-rights and education establishments. (A forthcoming study by University of Cincinnati criminologist John Paul Wright [you can read the PDF file here] confirms the obvious: The racial gap in suspensions is completely accounted for by students’ prior problem behavior.) 

Anderson’s case demolishes a more specific assertion of the “school discipline is racist” movement as well. The most ubiquitous conceit propounded by the anti-suspension activists is that white students are more frequently reprimanded for “objective” offenses, and black students for “subjective” offenses. University of Indiana school-psychology professor Russell Skiba arrived at that distinction  in 2002 (PDF file here) when analyzing why students in one urban school district were sent to the principal’s office for discipline. Once referred to the principal, white students were expelled at the same rate as black students, Skiba found (undoubtedly to his disappointment). But he concluded that there was a systematic distinction in the reasons why students were referred: Whites were sent for what Skiba deemed “objective” offenses, like smoking, leaving the classroom without permission, and vandalism, and blacks for “subjective” offenses like threat, disrespect, and excessive noise. From which it followed — at least for Skiba and his civil-rights colleagues — that schools were arbitrarily disciplining blacks, resulting in the familiar discipline disparities.

Skiba’s schema was meaningless on a number of fronts. Try telling a teacher being threatened with physical retaliation that her plight is merely “subjective.” But even if one were to accept his strained distinction between objective and subjective offenses and its universal applicability, it doesn’t mean that the allegedly “subjective” offenses for which black students were disciplined were not serious violations of classroom order, jeopardizing the ability of other students to learn. And Kahton Anderson shows why these so-called subjective offenses like “disrespectful chatter” and insubordination matter beyond the classroom, regardless of the perpetrator’s race: They are a manifestation of deeper problems of self-control and the response to authority. As with the broken-window theory of crime, they need to be addressed in the hope of preventing more serious infractions stemming from a student’s lack of self-discipline.

The Anderson shooting also rebuts a host of other pseudo-racism memes, such as the claim that the New York Police Department’s racially skewed stop-question-and-frisk statistics demonstrate departmental bias against blacks. To the contrary, it is shooting wars between crews like Anderson’s, and other inner-city crime waves, that determine police deployment and tactics. If middle-schoolers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side were shooting each other as middle-schoolers do in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the NYPD would be out in force there as well, looking for suspicious behavior that could indicate a crime about to happen. Here’s news for the civil-rights industry: Such crew violence as Anderson’s is virtually exclusively a black and Hispanic phenomenon. Ninety-eight percent of all shootings in New York City are committed by blacks and Hispanics; whites and Asians commit 2 percent. Anderson opened fire on the bus after a member of the rival Twan Family, who had just climbed on board, allegedly grabbed his waistband. This telltale sign of gun possession is routinely mocked by the civil-rights industry when the police invoke it as grounds for a stop. Actual criminals are not so naïve.

The only surprising thing about Anderson’s story is that he had been disciplined at all, even if ineffectively. Thanks to the constant pressure from the Obama administration and the civil-rights establishment, the New York City school system, like so many others, has stripped teachers of vast swaths of their disciplinary powers. The exercise of those powers disproportionately affects black students; therefore, the teachers and administrators must be racist. The victims of this blind campaign will be the law-abiding students prevented from learning by the uncontrolled chaos in their classrooms, and the victims of criminals who never learned to master their impulses.

Heather Mac Donald is a Thomas Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Are Cops Racist?


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