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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  1. Flex says

    You might already have read it, but Claude Steele’s, “Whistling Vivaldi” discusses many of the same issues you bring up above, and I thought it was well worth the read. I’ve been reminded of the book by several of your posts, so I thought I’d finally mention it.

    The title refers to the author’s practice of whistling Vivaldi while walking home late at night in order to alleviate other people’s fear of him (much the same way you described shuffling your feet in a previous blog entry). But the bulk of the book discusses how preconceptions subconsciously affect our interactions with others and our view of ourselves.

  2. Pen says

    That’s a very good analysis. I remember some research, done in the UK I think, showing that white teachers invested far more time and effort in helping white students who were dropping out, while ‘giving up’ on black students relatively quickly. I wish I could find it.

    One of the problems here is that white people (like teachers, legal professionals) often to go well above and beyond the call of duty in helping the white people they end up serving, cutting them slack, etc. It’s that ‘little extra’ that makes the world go round for a whole lot of us. It goes even further than systematically orienting black people towards the more negative of two professionally validated outcomes, and white people towards the more positive one. The fact that this ‘extra’ is a gift that they do not actually owe to anyone makes it particularly hard to address the issues of who they’re subconsciously allocating it to and how much impact that has.

  3. Miki Z says

    It’s a hard balance to strike, I think, between strict guidelines and discretion of the teacher. My wife recently finished a job search for a teaching job, and at two of the places she interviewed she was told she just “wouldn’t fit” with the culture. Her name is gender-ambiguous, and several potential employers were crest-fallen when I told them they were calling for my wife, not me.

    It’s difficult not to be suspicious when the corporate website shows 37 white men as their teachers. Hmm, I wonder why they didn’t feel a black woman would be the right fit, even with an advanced degree in her field and decades of experience… Well, not really; I don’t wonder. I do wonder how they treat kids who aren’t part of the majority.

    How do we ensure that teachers respond fairly when given discretion? The answer seems to me to be anti-bias training — most of which is just the continual self-examination you mention — but the process seems slow, and a lot of children suffer in the interim.

  4. Pteryxx says

    it’s possible to have impersonal checks such as what provided the stats above, and take discrepancies as evidence of problems. Also, the teachers can’t very well be blinded to the race of their own students, but someone doing oversight of the stats can be: for instance, going over teachers’ recommendations with only case information and no names or other race/gender indicators.

    Some groups already do this to analyze teacher performance in general – how much time spent controlling the classroom versus lecturing versus addressing student questions, by using videotape analysis, for instance.

    Self-examination alone won’t do much for unconscious, subjective bias.

    I wonder if fifteen-minute writing affirmations would help the teachers reduce their own bias, the way they help students overcome stereotype threat?

  5. Pen says

    I feel that the only thing that will work is for people to expand their circle of identification so that ‘us’ is not race specific. Then their sub-conscious will fire in the right way automatically. It’s a tricky one though because the so-called colour-blind think they are that way already, but instead of an expanded in-group, they try to assimilate people into their restricted in-group, inevitably as second-class members when it’s discovered that they fail to quite fit in.

  6. Miki Z says

    Yes, you’re absolutely right. I didn’t intend self examination to be code for unguided introspection. My wife’s training involved, among other things, being video-taped periodically and shown how she responded to different situations, with suggestions for improvement and consistency.

    I think it’s especially important for those teachers who belong to the most privileged groups, because they are more likely (in my opinion — I don’t know if teachers differ, but I’ve observed this among the general public) to base things on their view of the student’s motives and to suffer from confirmation bias.

  7. says

    I feel like I want to wait till I finish The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander before I make much in the way of comments on this post.

    I will say that this is an aspect of why I want to work in education in the prison system. I want to do my best to give people convicted of crimes access to an education (and perhaps a way out) that may not available to them once they leave prison. It seems to me to be the best way I can help affect the world in a good way.

  8. says

    Thanks for another fascinating post. I’m doing a course with the Open University aimed at managing complexity using systems concepts. Some of these concepts are related to perspectives and worldviews and your posts often touch on these. You do seem to be a very gifted systems thinker and see systemic problems for what they are (or might be).

    I’m interested in systemic social problems and this seems to be one of the most difficult to unravel. I do think that you’re right that it’s the system that is racist and most of the people in it can’t see it or appreciate it, but are affected by it nonetheless.

    Looking forward to reading more of this

  9. Who Knows? says

    Some time ago I read something very similar to this concerning the difference in perception of behavior between poor and well off children. It seems getting a fair shake is not so easy.

  10. ginmar says

    There’s a book called “Failing at Fairness” which addresses the situation for girls, but offers insights into the way black kids are treated as well, because it’s pretty much the same. White boys got the most leeway of all in class; their misbehavior was treated as cute, interested, eager, boyish, and so on—–and girls got shouted down. If girls tried to get the teacher’s attention away from the boys, the rules suddenly got enforced. Then it was back to boys shouting, snapping their fingers, waving both hands, shouting the answer, even standing on their chairs, all of which was against the rules for girls. They had to videotape classes of this for teachers who said they’d trained especially to be fair and neutral, and they were shocked.

  11. says

    “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.”

    Yes, this. A hundred times this. I didn’t understand this when I was a white high-school student, but later working in a school, I saw this happen over and over again.

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