As recent protests spur tough conversations about the racial bias of police officers, a national group of educators and policy analysts is urging teachers, too, to examine their prejudices -- especially in relation to school discipline.
Black students are suspended or expelled at triple the rate of their white counterparts, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Some 20 percent of black male students receive out-of-school suspensions, compared to just 6 percent of white male students.
Last month, the Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative released a paper positing that to eliminate that discipline gap, people must start by talking about it more. The paper examines the systemic and historical reasons why students of color are more harshly disciplined in school and why educators, often with no conscious racial intent, perpetuate these practices.
According to the paper, centuries of stereotypes and propaganda have spread the myth of the dangerous black male. Slaveholders pushed this image so that runaway slaves would be seen not as escaping victims but as menaces to society.
"As a Christian nation, America really needed to convince itself that if it was going to enslave, it was enslaving a lower race," Russell Skiba, professor in the school psychology program at Indiana University and co-author of the paper, told The Huffington Post.
In the current era, that stereotype of the dangerous black male still taints the subconscious minds of many. In schools, the paper says, the bias manifests itself in disproportionately high suspension rates for students of color.
The goal of the Discipline Disparities collaborative is not to chastise educators for letting stereotypes shape their actions, but to get them talking openly. Stereotypes cannot be dismantled unless they are examined. But teachers are often reluctant to discuss racial issues for fear that they will be labeled as racist, the paper says.
"For schools to begin to look at their own data [on who they suspend] is really important," Skiba told HuffPost. But it can't stop there, he said. “If we just present that data cold, it's very difficult for folks to have those conversations. Folks will say, 'When I see these disparities, I feel like I'm being called a racist.' That's not the point at all. The point is to say, what is creating these issues?”
He continued, "The second step is having some general conversations. Who is disadvantaged? Where did these stereotypes come from? ... Then we can talk about specific instances like, 'this happened when I was dealing with Josh in my classroom.'"
The third step, Skiba said, is for schools to develop new practices that will close the discipline gap.
"Ultimately, we probably don't really have a choice about where we're going to deal with these issues, because if we don't, they explode somewhere and then we have to deal with them," he said.
Mica Pollock, a professor of education studies at the University of California, San Diego, and another co-author of the paper, pointed out that black students are already suffering the consequences of biased school discipline.
"A single suspension in ninth grade is correlated with a double chance of dropping out and a triple chance of ending up in the criminal justice system," Pollock told HuffPost.
She added, "I spend a lot of time supporting educators to talk about pervasive race dynamics. What's crucial is pointing out that these dynamics are pervasive, and there are ideas in our head even if we don’t want them to be there. We are good people who are in this field to make a difference for young people, and we're trying to figure out how to do that."