School Discipline Policies are Where the Anger Begins for Too Many Black Americans

Ferguson, Missouri protest, Aug 16th, Credit: CBS News
Ferguson, Missouri protest, Aug 16th, Credit: CBS News

What we are seeing in Ferguson, Missouri and in other cities is, in part, a direct outgrowth of misguided school suspension/expulsion policies over the last 50 years.

Those protests have revealed to others what black people have been living with for nearly half a century now — a whole generation of black men who believe that the game is rigged so that they will lose no matter what they do. To them it is normal to see excessive arrests, informal executions by the police who claim self-defense, or formal executions by a “justice” system that is not just to African-Americans.

In too many cases, that highly negative belief system develops from kindergarten through the last year that black students are in public schools, whatever year that may be.

Excessive Suspensions/Expulsions of Black Students

Local data was generated in several cities around the U.S. starting around 2011. But, nation-wide evidence of excessive suspensions of black students compared to other racial groups in public schools was quantified and reported in March by the US DOE Office for Civil Rights. You may download a PDF file  of their report, Data Snapshot: School Discipline HERE.

A series of serious attempts at correcting the problem were instituted around the country in public school districts that showed disproportionately high numbers of suspensions and expulsions of black students.

One such attempt was made with funding changes in California. It is described in this report from the San Diego newspaper Voice & Viewpoint: “Suspension Rate for African American Students in California Alarming”.

A significant set of reports was aired on KUT the NPR affiliate public radio station in Austin, Texas by their education reporter Kate McGee.

In the first installment,  she reported “Black Students Are Eight Percent of AISD – and Nearly One-Fourth of Suspensions”. The 2013 numbers compiled by that district showed that “…African-American students are nearly six times more likely to be suspended from school.”

In the second installment, “Why Do Black Students Get More Suspensions? Here Are 3 Possible Reasons”she focused on two researchers’ conclusions about why such high suspensions of blacks. In short here are their ideas:

  • Lack of cultural awareness
  • Lack of communication
  • Curriculum

Anyone who has taught highly diverse populations, especially that are also from poverty, will recognize these reasons.

Most significantly the very schools that need teachers who are experienced with racially diverse school populations recruit the newest teachers who are generally white, suburban, and not from a background of diversity.

This has been even more true of Teach for America teachers who have reflected even less diverse backgrounds, yet were sold to urban districts as the answer to their festering problems in schools that served the poor and diverse racial groups.

The recent growth of charter schools has not helped the situation, either. It has been the opposite. While charters sell themselves as the saviors of the poor, in daily practice they are quick to expel students who violate the smallest of infractions, especially if they are of a minority race in that school.

Too often those expelled students end up back in the very public schools where they were suspended multiple times before they left for the charter.

The Power of Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion

The zero tolerance discipline policies that have been in effect in too many schools for the last 50 years has led to a whole generation of young black men who have a deep anger at a culture that, to them, has always worked very hard to show them just how wrong they are for being black.

I don’t know of many teachers or administrators who would agree that those are the outcomes that they intended or achieved. But to young black men this is real.

The general public believes that out-of-school suspension is just time away that can be made up with homework.

  • But each day missed by a student for any reason is time missed from an important process of education that builds every day of the school year.
  • Each day missed from their school population reinforces the view by black students and other people in the school that those black students are really not a part of the school.
  • Each day missed means that black students get practice K through 12 at being outsiders. Should we be surprised that their anger will someday spill over about their exclusion from society, which is shockingly similar to the schools that they attended?

Excessive, consistent suspensions of only one race has a corrosive effect on a black student’s self-esteem and proves to them that American society will not accept them as anything else than representatives of a whole race, that is considered flawed by the majority white population.

It is nearly impossible in some situations for black students to believe that they are actually included in the student population of their school and so take that self-defeating belief into society. And whites who come from those same schools carry that belief about blacks into the same society. They believe that a whole race is corrupt, and so one representation of bad behavior from a member of that group is completely representative of the whole.

Those white students some day become the white cops who direct inordinate attention on the poorest black neighborhoods due to racist assumptions that black people are criminal by nature.

The anger that has been expressed in other cities around the U.S. about the Ferguson situation has shown us that it isn’t just a problem in one suburb of St. Louis.

It is a nation-wide problem that begins with a nation-wide problem in our schools. It’s time for course corrections in all of our schools.