Posted on November 14, 2021

Race Differences in School Discipline

Hippocrates, American Renaissance, August 2011

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A big source of white lies.

During the last 40 years, many studies have reported that in the United States there are race differences in the rates at which disruptive students are suspended and expelled from school. The rate is highest for blacks, followed by American Indians, Hispanics, and whites, and lowest for East Asians. Although the popular understanding of expulsions is that they are permanent, researchers generally categorize any suspension of more than 10 days as an expulsion.

In 1970, Dr. J. G. Backman found that blacks were 2.5 times more likely to be suspended and expelled than whites. In 2000, Dr. R. Gordon and his colleagues reported similar results from data collected in 1999 for 1.8 million school children drawn from public schools in a variety of cities and states. The highest suspension and expulsion rate was for blacks (12.8%), followed by Indians (11.0%), Hispanics (9.5%), whites (8.4%), and East Asians (3.2%). Asians were the model minority.

Researchers invariably consider the high rates of discipline for blacks, Indians, and Hispanics to be a serious problem that must be solved. One entirely typical study published in the Negro Educational Review in 2008 worried that “among girls, experiencing school discipline (e.g., suspension or expulsion) during middle school is the strongest predictor of being arrested later in adolescence.” The study noted that “suspension does not appear to work as a deterrent to future misbehavior,” and suggested that school discipline seems to cause later misbehavior, and should therefore be reduced as much as possible, especially for blacks.

In 2004, the American Psychological Association (APA) set up a task force to examine race differences in school discipline and determine the reason for them. The task force reported its findings in December 2008, and calculated suspension and expulsion rates as a multiple of the white rate, which it set at 1.0. For suspensions, the rates were Hispanics 1.23, Indians 1.52, and blacks 2.84. For expulsions the figures were Hispanics 1.50, Indians 1.98, and blacks 2.47. Curiously, the report gave no data for suspension and expulsion rates for Asians.

The task force then considered the reasons for these race differences. Many studies of this kind look into the correlation of rates of discipline with such things as poverty, divorce, family breakup, socio-economic status, etc., and find that they explain some but not all of the racial differences. What accounts for the rest? Could there be race differences in disruptive or violent behavior?

Not at all, the task force concluded. It stated that “there are no data supporting the assumption that African American students exhibit higher rates of disruption or violence that would warrant higher rates of discipline. Rather, African American students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons . . . the disproportionate discipline of students of color may be due to lack of teacher preparation in classroom management, lack of training in culturally competent practices, or racial stereotypes.” (p. 854)

This is a remarkable assertion because the most common reason for school suspension and expulsion is conduct disorder (also termed behavior problems or “oppositional defiance disorder”), consisting of excessive aggressiveness, violence, disobedience, and criminal offenses such as drug dealing. Many studies have reported that racial differences in this kind of behavior are similar to those in suspensions and exclusions.

For example, Drs. H. Feng & G. Cartledge reported that conduct disorder was .49 standard deviation units higher in blacks than in whites, while it was 1.12 lower in East Asians.

Similar differences have been reported in Britain. Professor Michael Rutter and his colleagues reported that behavior problems assessed by teachers of 3- to 5-year-old boys and girls at inner-city schools in London showed that black boys had 3.9 times the scores of white boys, and black girls had 2.3 times the scores of white girls. Professor Barbara Tizard and her colleagues reported that the prevalence of conduct disorders was 3.9 times greater in black boys than in white boys, and 2.3 times greater in black girls than in white girls.

The same race differences are also present in juvenile crime. In the 1960s, Dr. M. Gold reported that the ratio of blacks to whites for criminal convictions for boys was 8.1:1, while for girls the ratio was 14.1:1. Similar race differences are found in the case of adult crime. A 2005 report by the New Century Foundation found that blacks are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and that Hispanics are three times more likely. The report also found that for virtually all crimes, Asians are incarcerated at about one third the white rate. The report also looked closely at the possibility of police and justice system bias, and concluded that race differences in incarceration reflect race differences in criminality, not bias.

It will be noted that in all of these studies the black-white differences in the rates of conduct disorders and in criminal convictions are considerably greater than the differences in school expulsions and suspensions. This suggests that the task force’s conclusion that teacher bias explains racial difference in expulsions and suspensions is unlikely to be correct. In fact, the greater race differences in the prevalence of conduct disorders and in criminal convictions than in school discipline suggests that far from disciplining blacks more harshly, school principals are reluctant to suspend and expel them for fear of being accused of racism, and are therefore more tolerant of anti-social behavior by blacks.

Ever since the 1960s, when studies of race differences in school discipline became common, researchers have stressed the importance of keeping careful race statistics. This means school administrators know their patterns of discipline will be scrutinized, and that they will be criticized for any departure from proportionality.

The most reasonable interpretation of all these studies is that there are racial differences in anti-social behavior, and these explain the differences in suspension and expulsion rates. The task force was composed of experienced social scientists who cannot have been unaware of the many studies of conduct disorders and crime. One can only conclude that they simply ignored them and blamed high rates of suspension and expulsion on the inadequacies of white teachers.

Entirely aside from the fact that race differences in behavior are well established, there are ways to check the task force’s conclusions about white incompetence. There are now many non-white school administrators who have disciplinary authority. Why did the task force not research black and Hispanic principals? If their patterns of discipline were the same as those of whites — or even showed sharper race differences — it would undercut the theory of white incompetence and bias.

Furthermore, why do race differences in discipline rates always seem to show the same pattern, with the black rate highest and the Asian rate the lowest? If these differences are due to white ignorance and prejudice, it is remarkable that throughout the country, year after year, the irrational behavior of whites produces exactly the same pattern. Who would have imagined that something so inherently unstable as subjective bias should produce such consistent results?

Finally, why are high rates of discipline for blacks, Hispanics, and Indians a problem but low rates of discipline for Asians are not? Are Asians beneficiaries of favorable but false “stereotypes,” or are they less disruptive? If they are less disruptive, then even the most doggedly egalitarian researchers must accept the possibility that there are race differences in behavior. No doubt this is why no one looks seriously into the question of Asians.

As for the concern expressed by the research reported in the Negro Educational Review, it is unlikely that school discipline causes later misbehavior or crime. Students who are already unusually rebellious and aggressive by the time they are in middle school are probably likely to be criminals later in life no matter what their teachers do. Schools have no choice but to punish intolerable behavior, and it is in the best interests of well-behaving students of all races to expel incorrigibles, who make it difficult for others to learn.

Whenever social science touches on the question of race differences, the temptation to twist the facts appears to be overwhelming. The question of race differences in discipline rates is no exception.


American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? American Psychologist, 63, 852-862.

Backman, J. G. (1970). Youth in transition. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Feng, H., & Cartledge, G. (1996). Social skill assessment of inner city Asian, African and European American students. School Psychology Review, 25, 228–239.

Gold, M. (1966) Undetected criminal behavior. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 3, 27-46.

Gordon, R., Piana, L. D., & Keleher, T. (2000). Facing the consequences: an examination of racial discrimination in US public schools. Oakland, CA: Applied Research Center.

New Century Foundation, The Color of Crime, 2005.

Rutter, M., Yule, et al., (1974). Children of West Indian Immigrants.

Rates of behavioural deviance and of psychiatric disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 15, 241–262.

Tizard, B., Blntchford, P., Burke, J., Farquhar, C., & Plewis, J. (1988). Young children at school in the inner city. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wallace, J., Goodkind, S., et al., Negro Educational Review, 2008; 59 (1-2): 47–62.