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Problems with personal anecdote as evidence: Racism in school discipline is alive and well despite your one story to the contrary

shutterstock_151229789favicon A study released by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is causing a big stir. Among its findings, the report concluded that African American preschoolers are suspended at a higher rate than white preschoolers and that they receive harsher punishment for similar transgressions.

If you’re a teacher, this isn’t surprising.

But tell it to readers of the New York Times, as the newspaper did a few days ago, and (white) folks get a little crazy.

Yes, I read the comments that accompanied the article. Usually calm and intellectual and reasoned, New York Times commenters, especially when discussing race, have become unhinged of late, spewing vitriolic (though largely well-written) arguments that lack any real evidence. Instead, most commenters have relied on personal anecdote (and white privilege) to make their points.

Here’s an example (not even one of the most incendiary):

One of my fellow teachers was attacked by a Kindergartner who called her cracker, white bitch and a host of racial epithets; he was suspended only after attacking her with a pencil, where he attempted to stab her. She was then told by administrators that if she could not deal with the situation, she should not be teaching in such a district (translation: here’s the door, cracker).

Here’s the deal. What happened to your friend is unfortunate. I’m sorry. But your friend’s personal anecdote does not outweigh the study’s data, which includes every school in the nation.

Just because we all went to school, and just because many of us have taught in public schools, and just because we have perhaps witnessed bad behavior by young people, white and Black — this does not mean that we can negate the systemic racism, manifested in discipline practices, that occurs in our nation’s public schools.

I understand that we need to have honest conversations about race, and the commenters are expressing their honest opinions, which is fine. But I wish that more people knew how to engage in the conversation. Unless you’re a statistician, disputing the statistical findings of the Office for Civil Rights is not a good idea. Your story of woe is not going to cut it.

It’s not up for debate that school discipline policies are racist. That’s a fact. But what can be discussed is what to do about it. That question was not included in the study. If more people engaged in that dialogue, maybe we could get past our own personal experiences and come up with ideas that’ll get us somewhere. favicon

One comment

  1. micheleg

    I did not see the Times comments to which you refer, so they must not exist.

    (This line of reasoning reminds me of my child, who thinks I can not see him if he can not see me. But he’s a child, so he’s got an excuse.)

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