Washington Tries to Intimidate the Schools

If African American students are disciplined in schools at a
higher rate than are white students, the obvious reason is that African
American students commit a disproportionate number of infractions.  Not
according to “disparate impact” (or “disparate outcomes”) thinking, however.
 Any time one sees significant gaps in black and white treatments or
results–suspensions, test scores, AP enrollments, etc.–racism is at work, it
says.  Either the teachers and administrators are consciously or
unconsciously prejudiced, or the culture of the curriculum and school is
contrary to the culture of black students, or embedded in the institution,
somehow or some way, are biased elements that subtly discriminate
(“institutional racism”).  The etiology of disparate impacts, though,
doesn’t matter.  This is the power of the approach.  It takes the
racial gap itself as evidence sufficient to prove the allegation.  When a
disparate impact surfaces, one doesn’t have to uncover actual cases of willful
discrimination such as a teacher who jumps on black students for the slightest
misdeeds while letting white students do the same without reproving them.
 No, the bare fact of racial gap is enough to convict the school district
of bias.

Heather Macdonald’s essay in City
, “Undisciplined: The Obama Administration undermines classroom
order in pursuit of phantom racism,” outlines the consequence when the Federal
government adopts disparate impact thinking.  Noting that just about every
school district in the United States disciplines black and Hispanic students
disproportionately, she reports, the Obama Education and Justice departments
have launched a campaign of intimidation and coercion against school systems
scattered around the country.

The approach often turns Orwellian.  When Federal officials investigate a
school, Macdonald finds, “They have refused to disclose to the school districts
under scrutiny why they have aroused suspicion.”  Being scrupulously fair
and equal is no defense for the schools either, for “even if a school applies
its discipline code fairly and in a color-blind fashion, it can still be liable
for civil rights violations if minorities are disproportionately affected and
it cannot demonstrate the absolute necessity of its disciplinary practices.”
 Suspected school systems must undergo costly “cultural-proficiency
training” and “anti-suspension behavioral-modification programs,” face
lawsuits, and hire experts and consultants.  More effectively (and
damagingly to the students themselves), schools simply lower the behavior bar
for black and Hispanic students, thereby closing the disciplinary gap (and
elevating classroom chaos).

The Obama Administration regards the problem so gravely that in a March 2010
speech Education Secretary Arne Duncan compared it to
that day in Selma, 1965
, when civil rights marchers were savaged by state
police. But last month when President Obama announced in a speech before the
Urban League the new White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for
African Americans, he didn’t even mention it.  When justifying the
Initiative, the President didn’t talk about the culture of black teens, nor did
he cite the number of them with no father in the home, high truancy and dropout
rates, and anti-intellectual and violent social and street lives.
 Instead, he cited unaffordable college tuition, inadequate “access to a
complete and competitive education,” and too much fun “(Obama lists ‘hanging
out . . . getting over . . . playing video games . . . watching ‘Real
Housewives'”).  Nothing on real or imagined misbehavior or dereliction by
black students, or on their social conditions such as astronomical rates of
illegitimacy (70 percent).  In Obama’s rendition, what hinders academic
excellence for African American students is either financial circumstances or
ordinary youthfulness (too much TV, not enough homework).

Given the enormous racial gaps in social conditions (illegitimacy among whites
is less than half the black rate), we may make a sure prediction.  It
won’t be long before the White House Initiative becomes one more Federal office
captivated by racism issues and disparate-impact thinking.  President
Obama didn’t put it that way–he wanted to be positive and genial–and the
promise to the Urban League was but another version of Democratic “clientism.”
 You get out the vote for me in November, he promised this 100-year-old
African American advocacy group, and I’ll steer more White House resources your
way.  But the ostensible mission of the Initiative won’t endure, for the
problems of African American students are not primarily of access and money.
 They stem, first, from family and culture.  When the Office finds
that its “academic excellence” emphasis doesn’t have much effect, it will
likely turns its resources to hunting down discrimination, and disparate-impact
allegations offer a ready and powerful weapon.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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