No, School Discipline Isn’t Racist

The media rely on faulty logic to allege racism in schools.

An April 4th headline in the New York Times was eye-catching: “Government Watchdog Finds Racial Bias in School Discipline.” Eye-catching, but highly misleading. The Government Accountability Office report, which was commissioned by congressmen Bobby Scott (D., Va.) and Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), found only what we’ve known for a long time — that African-American students are disciplined at higher rates than white students. Buried in a footnote, the GAO report concedes that disparities by themselves “should not be used to make conclusions about the presence or absence of unlawful discrimination.”

The fact that concession was relegated to a footnote is not the only reason to doubt the GAO’s good faith. Education secretary Betsy DeVos is currently considering whether to withdraw the Obama administration’s controversial “Dear Colleague” letter on school discipline. That letter told schools that their federal funding can be cut off if they discipline African-American students at higher rates than white students, even if the difference is the result of the evenhanded administration of their disciplinary code. The GAO report was released to great fanfare on the same day that DeVos met with interested parties on both sides of the issue. The timing suggests GAO officials may have been all too happy to upstage DeVos.

Here’s what the GAO didn’t disclose: The major reason for the disparity is clear, and it isn’t bias. As painful as it may be to admit, African-American students, on average, misbehave more than their white counterparts. Teachers (including African-American teachers) aren’t making this up, and it isn’t doing African-American students any favors to suggest otherwise.

Just recently, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report showing that African-American students self-report being in physical fights on school property at a rate more than twice that of white students. Similarly, California’s former attorney general (and current senator) Kamala Harris reported in 2014 that African-American fifth-graders are almost five times more likely than whites to be chronically truant. In addition, as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has reported, African-American male teenagers from ages 14-17 commit homicide at nearly ten times the rate of their white male counterparts. Why should anyone assume that rates of misbehavior in school would magically come out equal?

Too many of our leaders like to preen themselves, claiming that they can’t imagine why teachers would disproportionately discipline African-American students unless the reason is racial discrimination. But denying the facts doesn’t help African-American students. The primary victims of the Obama administration’s effort to federalize school-discipline policy are African-American students attending majority-minority schools who are struggling to learn amid increasing classroom disorder.

Why causes these differences in behavior? The short answer is that nobody can explain it perfectly. But common sense suggests, and reams of research show, that children from fatherless households as well as children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to get in trouble than other students. That’s at least a large part of the explanation.

The GAO tries to cast doubt on that by arguing that even in schools in prosperous neighborhoods, African-American students are disciplined at higher rates than whites. But the fact that a school is in a relatively prosperous locality doesn’t mean that the African-American students attending it are as well-off as their fellow students.

It’s not just African-American students who can point to disparate impact.

The New York Times ignored some of the GAO report’s other findings, presumably because they don’t fit the narrative. It’s not just African-American students who can point to disparate impact. White students are disciplined more often than Asian-American students, yet no one is claiming this is the result of anti-white discrimination. Then there are sex differences. The report found that boys get disciplined much more than girls, but hardly anyone is foolish enough to believe that this long-standing disparity is best explained as sex discrimination.

Meanwhile, the New York Times was not the only newspaper to read too much into the GAO report. On Friday (Saturday print), the Washington Post ran an editorial entitled “Betsy DeVos Shouldn’t Roll Back Guidance on Racial Discipline Disparities.” In it, the Post accused opponents of the Obama-era policy of being “ideologues.” But “ideologue” is a term best applied to those who are committed to the notion that the only possible explanation for a racial disparity is discrimination. The truth is more complex.

Astonishingly, the Post concludes its editorial by declaring that “there should be one standard that treats black and white students the same.” Critics of the “Dear Colleague” letter would certainly agree. But the letter itself tells schools precisely the opposite — that one standard isn’t good enough. “Schools also violate Federal law,” it says, “when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate nonetheless have an unjustified [disparate impact] on the basis of race.” Is this news to the Post’s editors? Neither they nor the rest of us can have it both ways.

Gail Heriot is a law professor at the University of San Diego and a Member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


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