In the mid 1990′s, Parenting Magazine, which was then briefly trying its hand at more serious stories, asked me to do an article about how African American boys were faring in general in elementary school. All these years after Brown v. the Board of Education, did much racism still linger and, if so, how did it play out in the classroom?
After months of research, the answer I found was that a LOT of racism still lingered (in many cases, it was unintentional) and that much of it was to be found in the area of school discipline.
In fact I found so many instances of shriekingly discriminatory behavior being visited on elementary school children and doing damage to kids around the country that it freaked out the editors at Parenting to the point that they began to cut and rewrite large parts of my story so that it wasn’t so “scary.”
For example here’s how they rewrote the opening;
Imagine for a moment that you live in a land where a number of the citizens have purple hair. Now suppose that most non-purple-haired people feel a little uneasy about the grape-haired folk, especially the males. And what if the vague prejudice extended even to little boys in school, who, because of the color of their hair, were apt to hear both these messages regularly: Purple-haired boys aren’t as smart as normal-haired boys….
Large contractual fights resulted, over the above….um… purple prose, and the cuts. Eventually, in a compromise that pleased no one, some of the excised sections were put back in and the editor who authored grape hair part of the increasingly benighted article shared the by-line with me. (I wanted to yank the piece, and take it elsewhere, or failing that, take my name off it altogether.) I vowed huffily never to work with Parenting again. Yet, just this morning, I reread the story, and even with the editors’ relentless dumbing down, a plethora of startling facts came through about this new kind of Jim Crow in public schools—-as civil rights litigator and author, Michelle Alexander, might call it.
For instance, I found back then that, according to the Office of Civil Rights, in the early 1990′s African American males in primary and secondary schools were suspended more than twice as often as white males.
When I looked at big city stats, the numbers got worse. For example, in the Minneapolis school system, enrollment of black and white males is nearly the same, but 43 percent of all students suspended during the 1995-96 school year were black males-as opposed to 14 percent who were white males. Yet most of the suspensions of black boys were not for big things—fighting, profanity, verbal abuse or any kind of dangerous behavior. The majority were suspended for “lack of cooperation” and “disrespect”—infractions that went largely undisciplined in their white counterparts.
I bring this up because it has come to my attention that, although it’s been fifteen or so years since I wrote the story for Parenting, little has changed—even though, as you may have noticed, school discipline is a newly hot topic– namely the damage done by over disciplining kids, meaning school suspensions, expulsions, and the like.
(I even did a story on it the issue at WitnessLA in May of this year.)
The problem of kids being damaged by patterns of over discipline is nationwide. Yet the kids suffering most are African American children. Last month there was a six-year, million kid study released by the Council of State Governments regarding suspensions and expulsions in Texas schools. First of all they found that a ridiculous number of kids had been suspended, and that repeated suspensions predict later involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Then the study noted that African American kids were far more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
A study in 2000 by the Southern Poverty Law Center called the Color of Discipline the results were similar.
The point was brought home by an article that ran in LA Progressive over the weekend in which Sikivu Hutchinson ticked off the ways in which school discipline is affected by color in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Here’s a clip from some of what Hutchinson found:
In the LAUSD the numbers for the 2009-2010 school year speak for themselves.* At Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles (with a predominantly black faculty) black and Latino students are almost equal in number yet black students account for 62% of those suspended. At Venice High School on the Westside black students represent 9.5% of the population and 25% of those suspended. At Hamilton High they represented over half of the opportunity transfers despite being only 28.5% of the population. In 2008-09 they were 57% of those suspended at Hamilton; in 2009-10 they were 51% of those suspended. At Fairfax High School black students were 18.3% of the population yet represented 43.5% of suspensions. With the exception of Washington Prep, all of these schools had majority Latino populations.
And it goes on from there. Be sure to read it. At times, Hutchinson has a slightly over-the-top prose style, but her point and her facts are solid—and troubling.
ON ANOTHER TOPIC ALTOGETHER, READ THIS GREAT OP ED ON THE ROLL OF “COGNITIVE BIAS” IN WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS
In Tuesday’s LA Times, UCLA’s Jennifer L. Mnookin writes about a case that illustrates how cognitive bias can cause law enforcement and witnesses both to go disastrously down the wrong path. Here’s how she opens:
Last week, the “West Memphis Three” were released from prison, having spent half their lives — 18 years — behind bars for crimes they almost certainly didn’t commit. So what made prosecutors and investigators sure they had the right guys, and why were those beliefs, once established, so hard to reverse?
The crimes for which the three Memphis men were convicted were brutal. Three 8-year-old Cub Scouts were found dead, hogtied and apparently mutilated. The police decided early on that it was likely the boys had been victims of a satanic cult killing, which led them to consider self-described Wiccan teen Damien Echols, a young man with asymmetric black hair, a pale face and oddball taste in clothes and music. They hauled in an acquaintance of his, a minor named Jessie Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, and interviewed him for hours without his parents or an attorney present. Finally, he confessed, implicating Echols and another friend, Jason Baldwin.
The confession confirmed what police expected to hear — that Echols was involved — which may be why they accepted it at face value. But Misskelley’s account contradicted the evidence in multiple ways. The time he initially gave for the murders was noon, an hour for which the other teens had an ironclad alibi (they were in school); he said that the other suspects raped the boys, but the medical evidence showed no physical trauma consistent with rape and no semen was found in any body cavity; he said the boys were tied up with a brown rope, when they were actually found tied with their own shoestrings.
An overarching problem, which this case illustrates perfectly, is that humans have a tendency to see what they expect to see.