Affirmative Action for School Discipline?

The outcome of the 2012 presidential election will determine the federal education mandate but the true measure will be whether America can successfully close the racial disparities facing U.S. schools.
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Last summer, President Obama faced a barrage of criticism after signing an executive order creating two federal panels to review public schools' discipline policies and outcomes toward African-American students. He referenced profound differences in school suspension rates between African-American and white students, acknowledging a disparate use of discipline policies. Now, after just months of review, the Oakland Unified School District has decided to regulate school disciplinary actions that have a disparate impact on black and Latino students, and students receiving special education services. Call it what you want, affirmative action for school discipline, but what does race based discipline mean for the American education system? What does it mean for America?

Oakland follows Maryland's Board of Education who recently implemented race based discipline policies mandating that no one racial or ethnic group undergo a disproportionate rate of disciplinary actions. Opponents of this policy blame high rates of illegitimacy and poor parenting among black families. They evoke images of black students walking into school with a machete and getting away with it and white students being suspended for chewing gum. They scoff at the perspective that disparate discipline outcomes are a result of institutional racism; a notion they reject altogether. Trying to get these folks to understand that school policies are invested in the wellbeing of white students will end with you wanting to beat your head against the wall.

Like it or not, the disorder and violence in urban schools that make it difficult to teach or learn, and disproportionately affect black and Latino students, is a result of deep-seeded, institutional racism. Those who argue that racial disparities in school suspensions are not proof of racial discrimination need a lesson in differentiating between interpersonal and internalized racism. This is not a tactic to excuse violent behavior based on ones race; that's not an argument worth entertaining. Nor does this have anything to do with white people being the enemy; in fact, most white educators are eager to be allies to students of color. It has to do with the racist ideology that has been internalized by people of all races since the invention of the white race.

African American boys made up 17 percent of Oakland Unified students in 2010-11, yet they represented 42 percent of students suspended. Disruption or defiance of authority was the most common reason for discipline, accounting for 38 percent of their suspensions. Disruption or defiance of behavior is essentially a subjective interpretation of a behavior made by school staff or administrators at any given moment. Thus, disparate discipline has the potential to be rooted in negative teacher perceptions about Black and Latino students, rather than the actual behavior of the students. What may be deemed "teenage behavior" for white students may be considered criminal for students of color simply based off the messages we receive from society about people if color. Stopping school officials from disciplining black students who violate minor school rules is a step toward actively challenging internalized perceptions we have about people of color. It is this type of action that is required to change the consciousness of the American people.

School district's like Oakland's are not attempting to manipulate a discipline system to be race based instead of behavior based. The argument that white students are suspended more often than Asian students indicating racism against white students, is irrelevant. Any eye rolling antagonist will tell you that a post-racial America has been the running joke since 2008. President Obama did not and cannot change the simple notion that the U.S. was conceived and then nurtured around the concept of white superiority. Whether it's intentional or not, the messages received about people of color frame society's perception of black and brown people. Dismantling racism requires acknowledging that white privilege is the beating heart of America. It's going to take our government to set policy and institutions like the Oakland School District to take the lead in implementing policies that make us think differently about black and brown people.

The outcome of the 2012 presidential election will determine the federal education mandate but the true measure will be whether America can successfully close the racial disparities facing U.S. schools. In true transformative practice, President Obama has not shied away from addressing underlying racist practices in our public schools but it hasn't been enough. We have a teaching and administrative body that doesn't always understand the context of where students of color come from leading to cultural misunderstandings. Without intentional policies that force us to question racist practices, racism will continue to hide in plain sight because those with privilege continue to be the ones in charge. The direct social consequence will be a continuation of disparate outcomes based on race in all sectors of society.

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