As new data appears about the disparity of discipline based upon race and gender, Cornelius Walker wonders how the perception of race will affect his two sons.
Race plays a strange role in my relationship with my boys. Through the lottery that is genetics, my oldest son has my dark hair and dark skin while my youngest has his mother’s fair skin and sandy blond hair. Friends opined on my second son’s birth, “I thought he’d have more color.” Strangers felt no reluctance in sharing their opinions either. “How wonderful that is!” one Whole Foods shopper declared to my wife. Determining that the woman pushing the carriage assumed my oldest to be adopted, my wife politely smiled and said, “No, they’re both mine.” The shopper’s expression shifts between embarrassment to puzzlement, finally resting on recognition. “Same father,” my wife responded to the unasked question. Puzzlement returns. For my wife’s part, she probably would have preferred adoption to a 9lb 11oz breech presentation followed by emergency cesarian. Still, our two sons are no less wonderful, even if one wasn’t adopted.
For much of my life I’ve had to deal with the question, “What are you?” or occasionally the more circumspect, “Where are you from?” In later years I’ve made sport of this inquiry, choosing to respond with the few words of Arabic or Hindi that I know, or purposefully adopting a North African or West Indies dialect. Growing up the question was never present. Because of court-ordered school desegregation, I attended four different schools over five years as a fleet of busses was put into service to remedy racial disparity. As kids we were aware of race, certainly, but it didn’t play an outsized role in our lives. While the black kids typically preferred to sit at the back of the bus (much to Rosa Parks’s horror I’m sure) there was no sense of overt discrimination on the part of adults. While my father needed a straw buyer to purchase our first home, that neighborhood was predominantly minority by the time I was born. If we were treated differently by the adults around us due to race, I never noticed.
Do you think people treat you differently because of your race?
When I was first asked this question, I was ten years old and living with my grandmother in a Cleveland suburb. Unlike the earlier schools I had attended, this school was nearly entirely white. The fifth grade teacher making the inquiry was no exception. To be honest, I had never considered it. While certainly aware that I was darker—my protest against the “flesh” colored Crayola crayon I had been handed in first grade was my first overt awareness—I had never really considered what my “race” was. My father was black and my mother white-ish. I was the darkest, my three siblings having increasingly lighter skin than I as if the melanin supply dwindled with each successive birth. But that was just skin color; race hadn’t been elevated to the level of “identity” for me.
Standing in front of this teacher I felt my eyes well up with tears as the realization struck: to her I was in some fundamental way different than everyone else. As with any kid in school, and particularly as the new kid, the one thing I wanted to do was fit in. At my previous schools there were Whites, Chicanos, Blacks, and Indochinese (as the Vietnamese refugees were referred to at the time). What did race have to do with anything? But here, where the skin color was much more uniform, it became obvious that I was different. I didn’t understand why her question bothered me enough to bring me to tears, but the following year I would understand its importance.
My sixth grade year found me with my first disciplinary event, ever. Until then I had been a model student, a part of the Gifted and Talented program, and was reading three years ahead of my grade level. I rarely attended class—not because I was cutting but because my teachers had no idea what to do with me. For social studies I was sent to make certificates of achievement on one of the school’s three computers. My math teacher handed me a dusty Algebra I book and told me to teach myself. Oftentimes I would just doodle, and I honed my artistic skills from re-creating comics to realistic portraiture.
The day of my first in-school fight is seared in my memory. The whistle signifying the end of recess had blown, and in front of me a friend was screaming about how we were going to fight after school. He was speaking nonsense, but when I realized he was serious I told him there would be no fight. Rumor spread quickly, and as we spilled out of the building at the end of the day the two of us were quickly surrounded. The kids began to chant, “A fight! A fight! A black and a white! The white can’t fight but the brother’s alright!” which served only to infuriate my friend. I refused to fight him, choosing instead to dodge and weave while his fist whizzed by (did I mention he had only one arm?). He landed one punch on my shoulder before the fight was broken up.
In the principal’s office we each told our side of the story. He thought I had thrown a ball at him at the end of recess. I earnestly explained to the principal how he was mistaken, how I didn’t want to fight him, and how I didn’t make any attempts to punch him. My father had taught me that fighting was never the answer, and that philosophy had become a core part of my identity. At the end of the day, my friend received one day suspension and I received three. Wait, what? Maybe the principal felt sorry for his physical disability; still he had started it and I had done everything I could to avoid it.
Looking back on this event now, I can only wonder if the fact that he was white and I was not had anything to do with it. The latest numbers collected by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights paint a disturbing picture. We’ve known for decades that minorities are treated worse in the criminal justice system, where the race of the perpetrator and the race of the victim play an outsized role in the punishment received. And to be clear, any role other than “none” is unconscionable. But perhaps that’s exactly the problem—racism isn’t always a conscious act. Sometimes the first sign of racism isn’t graffiti scrawled on the bathroom stall, but a longitudinal study showing pervasive patterns of discrimination.
We’ve long known about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. White defendants receive lighter sentences than minorities, and white victims provoke harsher penalties for black defendants. What was less certain is whether and how this dynamic played out in our school systems. In a post-Columbine environment schools have turned to “zero tolerance” policies to deal with discipline issues. Schools are increasingly responding to infractions with suspension, expulsion, and arrest. Resource officers have given way to patrol officers, leading to such absurdities as the arrest of a five year old girl for throwing a tantrum. Drug-sniffing dogs are employed to ferret out contraband Ibuprofen. Students are suspended for that most egregious display of sexual misconduct known colloquially as “hugging.” It would seem then that such penalties, harsh as they are, would be administered evenly in the interest of protecting the school community.
Such excessive punishment for what seem like minor infractions is bad enough, but compounding this error is evidence that the same pattern of disparate treatment of minorities common in our justice system is also present in our education system. Tolerance for misbehavior, is appears, approaches closer to zero the further your ethnic identity is from white. This combination of systemic racism and a punitive disciplinary system has created a school-to-jail pipeline for a large number of our children. Some might claim it is an unavoidable result of our declining civility, but the data makes clear it doesn’t have to be this way. The OCR summary report highlights on page 4 the Andrew Jackson school in Chicago, Illinois, where fewer than 1% of minority students received out-of-school suspension and 100% of students enrolled in Algebra I passed (compared to 17% and 78% respectively for blacks overall in K-8 Chicago Public Schools). Whatever the link between race, misbehavior, and punishment, at least one school has found a way to break the cycle.
Some twenty-five years after that first fight my oldest son is now in sixth grade. Like my father, I’ve taught them that fighting is never appropriate, that the only time it is ever okay to strike another person is in self-defense. We live in a town that is 97% white, and they attend a small school where I’ve never heard of a fight in the seven years he’s been there. Still, as he transitions into Middle School, I can’t help but worry how my boys will be treated by a system that is disinterested in helping students navigate conflict and increasingly willing to push them into the criminal justice system. I am also worried about what this latest data on race and punishment means for my two boys. What is truly hard to fathom—particularly more than a quarter century after my own experience—is that one of my boys might be treated differently than his brother solely because of the color of his skin.