Good for the goose, bad for the gander

So this morning we looked at the ways in which our judicial system is seemingly set up to disappoint those in greatest need of justice, particularly black people. Our racist biases (which, I believe, we are all subject to regardless of how “non-racist” we like to fancy ourselves) find the cracks in our institutional frameworks, causing disproportionate destruction to those groups against which we have the strongest antipathy. It is completely insignificant to protest that we don’t mean to be, or that we don’t feel racist – it’s the outcome by which we have to judge actions. The only time that intent matters is when we’re trying to figure out how to fix the problem – not in how we label it.

The first half of understanding this particular issue is recognition that the system itself has structural elements that, by assuming that everyone walks into the halls of justice as equals, perpetuates societal inequalities. The other side of the coin, as far as this argument goes, is that individual actors within the system make judgments that reveal internal discriminatory biases. When we make judgments about others, those judgments are informed by processes that are both conscious and unconscious. The issue, of course, is that while we can moderate the way our conscious mind works, we do not have the same level of control over, to put a fine point on it, the parts of our brains we don’t control.

Once again, this leads us into trouble:

Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools than other students, according to new data from the Department of Education.

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.


“Those are extremely dramatic numbers, and show the importance of reinstating the civil rights data collection and expanding the categories of information collected,” said Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. “The harsh punishments, especially expulsion under zero tolerance and referrals to law enforcement, show that students of color and students with disabilities are increasingly being pushed out of schools, oftentimes into the criminal justice system.”

So there are undoubtedly a whole host of overlapping explanations for this phenomenon. The presence of “zero tolerance” laws, which operate the same as mandatory minimums do, all but ensure that the brunt of the punishment will be borne by minority students. Because race and socioeconomic status are so closely related in most parts of the country, we are likely to see more black kids in schools that are run down, with teachers who are poorly trained, in neighbourhoods that breed social problems. Certainly we will see the effect of undernutrition and the behavioural consequences thereof as a function of poverty. These other potential explanations cannot be ignored (and were not controlled for).

But I’m sure if you ask teachers the right way, they’ll tell you that they’re not punishing kids based on their race – it’s just that the kids who act up most often tend to be black and Latin@. Saying that this is due to racist teachers, they’ll say, is putting the cart before the horse. What we are seeing is not the result of racist ideology, but the result of real behavioural discrepancies seen in black and Latin@ students, and which white students are less likely to do.

And this is the other central flaw, and the important point to understand as we anticipate the discussion we’ll be having tomorrow. This argument completely fails to address the very real phenomenon of drastically different interpretations of identical behaviour. Two kids act up in class, seldom finish their homework, and talk back to the teacher. One, a white student, is identified as being ‘held back’ by the slow pace of the course work, and is recommended to test for a ‘gifted’ program. The other, a black student, is suspended and eventually drops out. All of the above factors (zero tolerance, poverty, socioeconomic status, teacher training) play into this decision, but it would be foolish to dismiss the fact that race plays into our gut reactions, and specifically what we expect of students.

This is certainly a topic we’ve explored before - an identical behaviour in two people will be given dramatically different interpretations. What is ‘assertive’ in a man is ‘bitchy’ in a woman. What is ‘heartwarming’ in a straight couple is ‘throwing an agenda in our faces’ when done by a gay couple. What is ‘needing additional challenges’ in a white student is ‘disrupting the class’ in a black student. Again, this has nothing to do with overt, purposeful racism on the part of teachers – it is the result of blind cognitive processes that go unchallenged and unnoticed.

The solution to this problem is perhaps simplistic, but much easier to say than it is to do. That solution, incidentally, is the entire raison d’être of this blog: to learn to habitually examine our own behaviours and scrutinize them for racist ideas. Simply asserting that we are “not racist” because we are not consciously aware of any outward antipathy does not get us any closer to solving the myriad of social problems that fall along racial lines. Until we recognize this and make improvements, we are going to see results like this again and again.

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