The semantics of writing about race and school discipline

At this point, it’s pretty well established that under current school discipline policies, African-American students are suspended and disciplined at rates disproportionate to their percentage of the overall student population.

That is a clear and indisputable fact.

Many conclusions have been drawn from this basic fact, but some of these conclusions should warrant skepticism. For example, is it really true that “a student is three times more likely to be suspended if he or she is African-American”? This seems like a basic distortion of the data. Because not all or even most African-American students are suspended, being African-American in and of itself is not a leading cause of school suspension. It would be more accurate to say that when white students and African-American students engage in the same maladaptive behaviors, the black student is more likely to be suspended (and there does seem to be some data to support this).

What about the claim that “discipline systems unfairly target African-American students”? Also not true. While African-Americans receive overly harsh punishments for the same offenses, this is de facto and not de jure. Similarly, it’s not accurate to say that the policies themselves are racist; it would be more accurate to say that the misapplication of these policies results in racially biased decisions and harms students of certain races disproportionately. These may seem like picayune distinctions for some, but the way we talk about this will ultimately determine what is done about it.

There are actually two separate arguments that are often fused in the public discussion about this: (1) school discipline policies, which rely heavily on suspensions, result in racially biased decisions that treat black students unfairly (2) school suspensions are harmful when applied to students when less aversive interventions are possible.

Lately I have seen the arguments joined together in a way that doesn’t identify what the real problem is: if you don’t believe suspensions should be used in school discipline, then you would be in favor of reducing suspensions for all students. If you believe that the implementation of school discipline policies results in racially biased consequences, then you would be in favor of changing the way in which teachers and administrators decide who gets punished in what way for which behaviors to eliminate racial bias. Or you believe in both (as I do). But the “fused” argument: black students should be suspended less, does not follow logically from the two premises, and makes it easier for the position to be attacked in vapid and inane ways. 

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