The Corner

The DoE and Racial School-Discipline Disparities

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.

The report “reveals new truths,” DoE claims. It contains “long hidden data about which students are suspended, expelled, and arrested in school.” Hidden from whom? A dirty secret kept securely under wraps? In fact, the report just reiterates what everyone with the slightest interest in the subject already knew. 

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.

It boasts of using a representative sample covering approximately 85 percent of the nation’s students — bigger than any previously available. Given the sample size, it could so easily have answered some fundamental questions: the relationship between the race of the teacher and race of the disciplined student, for instance. If racial prejudice drives these disparities, black teachers must be filing fewer complaints against black students than white teachers do. This question is not even asked in this allegedly monumental study, although previous fragmentary evidence suggests black teachers are even less tolerant of disruptive behavior by black students than are white teachers.

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).

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