Need a quick reminder that we are not post-racial? Take another look at the recent Washington Post report on racial differences in school discipline. Across the board in the Washington region, black students are suspended and expelled from school two to five times as often as white students.
The problem, which seems to have become endemic, has been studied for years by experts in education and addressed by well-meaning school superintendents. Yet it persists.
In Montgomery County, nearly 6 percent of black students were suspended or expelled, compared to 1.2 percent of white students. In Fairfax County, 7 percent of black students were suspended compared with 1.5 percent of white students. Of the more than 35,000 students in the Washington suburbs who were suspended or kicked out of school last year, more than half were black.
The issue cuts across class lines, so it is not only a question of poor children facing greater challenges in the classroom. The disparity is one of race.
Two years ago, as I reported a story on race and education, I spent six weeks with a group of parents in Montgomery County who understood this.
They all signed up to participate in a weekly program there called Study Circles, which brings teachers and parents together to get real about race. Black and Hispanic parents shared freely with white teachers their concerns about their children not being placed in advanced classes at the same rate as white students. A black mother said she believed black children are viewed differently – without an expectation that they will succeed.
At the close of the six weeks of meetings, the participants came up with a plan to address the achievement gap in their local elementary school. (Perhaps the study circles program will begin looking more closely at the disciplinary gap, too.)
But the difficult cross-cultural conversation that took place in the Study Circle began with a discussion of culture: Who are you? What are your core beliefs? What is your background? How do you communicate? What are the stereotypes you think others have of your racial group?
Social scientist Carla R. Monroe, who has written a great deal about closing the discipline gap, argues that the answer to equal treatment for students is found in understanding the unique ways different groups of students engage. “Effective teachers of African American students align their professional practice with their students’ culture,” Monroe wrote in a paper published in eight years ago in the Journal of Teacher Education.
In other words, pretending to be post-racial is a barrier to actually getting beyond racial differences in school discipline.
Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001 and now covers civil rights, race & politics. Follow her on Twitter at @Krissah30