In March 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that his department was “going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement.” The secretary was speaking on the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers savagely beat and teargassed peaceful voting-rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. Duncan fleetingly acknowledged the racial progress that the nation had made since that shameful era, but he was soon back in the 1960s: “Skeptics sometimes tell me, ‘Slow down.’ They say our agenda to pursue equal opportunity is too ambitious. To them, I simply repeat what Martin Luther King said many years ago: ‘We can’t wait.’ I repeat what President Lyndon Johnson said after Bloody Sunday, when he told a joint session of Congress: ‘We have already waited a hundred years and more—and the time for waiting is gone.’ ”
President Johnson was calling on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in order to end the South’s century-long obstruction of black suffrage. What was the pervasive racial injustice that led Duncan to present himself as a modern-day Johnson? Black elementary and high school students are disciplined at a higher rate than whites are. To Duncan, that disparity can mean only one thing: schools are discriminating.
And so the Departments of Education and Justice have launched a campaign against disproportionate minority discipline rates, which show up in virtually every school district with significant numbers of black and Hispanic students. The possibility that students’ behavior, not educators’ racism, drives those rates lies outside the Obama administration’s conceptual universe.
In March 2012, Duncan released some newly gathered national discipline data. The “undeniable truth,” he said, was that the “everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity.” The massive media coverage of Duncan’s report trumpeted the discipline disparity—blacks were three and a half times more likely to get suspended or expelled than their white peers—as convincing evidence of widespread discrimination. (The fact that white boys were over two times as likely to be suspended as Asian and Pacific Islander boys was discreetly ignored, though it would seem to imply antiwhite bias as well.)
By the Summer of 2012, the Department of Education had launched investigations of at least five school systems because of their disparate black-white discipline rates. The Department of Justice had already put the Barnwell, South Carolina school district under a costly consent decree, complete with a pricey outside consultant, and was seeking similar control of other districts. The theory behind this school discipline push is what Obama officials and civil rights advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” According to this conceit, harsh discipline practices—above all, suspensions—strip minority students of classroom time, causing them to learn less, drop out of school, and eventually land in prison.
The feds have reached their conclusions, however, without answering the obvious question: Are black students suspended more often because they misbehave more?
The text above is excerpted and adapted from the article "Undisciplined," authored by Heather Mac Donald and published by the City Journal in the Summer of 2012. To view the entire article, click here.