A black dad reacts to racial school-discipline disparities

     Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks as Attorney General Eric Holder looks on as they discuss the importance of universal access to preschool and the need to reduce

    Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks as Attorney General Eric Holder looks on as they discuss the importance of universal access to preschool and the need to reduce "unnecessary and unfair school discipline practices and other barriers to equity and opportunity at all levels of education" at J. Ormond Wilson Elementary School in Washington, on Friday. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

    As a black father, my concerns for my children are much the same as those of other parents. I want my children to be safe, to be brilliant, to be successful. Most of all, I want them to know they are loved.

    But beyond those concerns are the underlying anxieties that come with knowing one’s children could face racial bias — even within the classroom.   

    When discipline problems arise at school, black parents don’t just have to deal with what happened. We also have to assess the reasons why.

    That’s when the questions begin

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    Are my children being targeted because they are black?

    Are they being mistreated because their teacher is not?

    Is the offense a real one, or is it an excuse for someone to discriminate against my child?

    Even in cases when our children have clearly broken rules, black parents are often left with an even more troubling question: Will the school’s punishment be in line with the offense?

    According to a new study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, the answer is increasingly, “No.” 

    By the numbers

    Black children represent about 18 percent of children in preschool programs, but they account for almost half of the preschoolers suspended more than once, the report said.

    Education advocates have long believed that zero-tolerance suspension and arrest policies in schools have contributed to a “school-to-prison” pipeline that disproportionately affects minority students, but until now, the focus has been on middle and high schools.

    This new report shows that the disparities in school discipline begin at the earliest grades. And the thought of it is troubling. Not just for me, but also for those responsible for our schools’ education and discipline policies.

    “It is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

    Attorney General Eric Holder went even further.

    “This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool,” Holder said. “Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed.”

    A discussion prompted

    That’s why I spoke to my 12-year-old daughter after we listened to a news report on the study. I told her that while she might not experience racism in the ways that I did, she would experience it nonetheless, because racism is still real.

    I explained to her that the report’s data revealed a troubling, system-wide bias. Then, I provided her with the same solution that my parents, and their parents before them, provided to black children who were facing more blatant forms of racism.

    I told her she would have to be better.

    If our children are to overcome the bias that would cause 4-year-olds to be suspended in numbers that indicate a racial bias against them, they have to be more attentive than other children.

    They have to be more inquisitive.

    They have to participate more readily.

    They have to shine more brightly.

    And on the days when those things aren’t enough, they simply have to act in ways that are smarter.

    How to thrive despite institutional obstacles

    The surest way to defeat racial bias is to deny its opportunity. Flouting rules gives those who would act in biased ways the excuse they need to do so. Performing poorly gives racists the excuse to mete out unfair treatment. Unnecessarily fighting authority gives racist animosity the fuel it needs to grow.

    So I instruct my children to do what they are told, within reason. And when reason disappears and they feel they are being treated unfairly, their job is not to fight the battle on their own. Their job is to come to me.

    But even when children and parents do all we can to fight bias, there will be times when racists will act in ways that are hostile.

    Those are the times when we must come together as a society and avail ourselves of every remedy, from legal action to the media’s megaphone.

    Those are the times when we have to stand up collectively and call out racism for what it is.

    Those are the times when we have to stand up for our children, because if black kids at all levels are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended something is wrong.

    Every American parent should be concerned about that kind of disparity, and we should stand up as one to make it right.

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