How students from racial minorities are disciplined differently to white students

"Raney's results build on decades of research that has already revealed that non-white students are punished far more ...

"Raney's results build on decades of research that has already revealed that non-white students are punished far more harshly than their white counterparts - and not just in the United States." Photo: Scott Simmie

According to a new study in the journal Sociology Of Education, schools with students from predominantly black and other minority backgrounds are more likely to punish students for misbehaving, whereas schools with more white students are likely to refer them to counselling.

According to the study's author, David Raney, a sociologist and criminologist at Penn State University who studied more than 60,000 US schools across 6,000 districts, the tendency to punish black students while steering white students to rehabilitation criminalises student behaviour and is akin to "writing off large swaths of our population."

Raney's results build on decades of research that has already revealed that non-white students are punished far more harshly than their white counterparts - and not just in the United States.

Last year, the US Department of Education revealed that black students are three times more likely to get excluded from school than their white counterparts. A 2003 British study found that students of Caribbean background were six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white classmates, while a New Zealand report from 2000 revealed that 40 per cent of all suspended and expelled students were Maori.

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In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are currently five times more likely to be suspended from school than their non-Indigenous classmates. While Indigenous students make up just 6.3 per cent of total enrolments in NSW schools, they received more than 24 per cent of long-term suspensions.

When we look at such statistics, the easy answer is to conclude that students from these backgrounds are problem students displaying early signs of criminality. However, Raney's study indicates that it is not the student's behaviour itself but how the students are perceived that is the real problem.

Earlier this year, a Stanford University study on implicit bias found that teachers are significantly more likely to punish a black student than a white one for the same behaviour. Even black teachers were not immune. Consequently, African-American students find themselves suspended simply for "disrespecting authority" or "loitering", while it usually takes violations such as "carrying a gun or drugs" to get a white student suspended.

The implications of this imbalance extend far beyond the classroom.

Suspensions, expulsions and other punitive punishments set young people up for a lifetime of marginalisation. And the fact they are meted out so readily to non-white students is a testament to how people from certain racial minorities are regarded as inherently criminal.

Actions that earn white people little more than a slap on the wrist or a sternly delivered warning are treated as major transgressions when committed by people of colour. At school, this may take the form of "loitering" and "disrespecting authority." In the adult world, this means everything from minor drug possession to not signalling while changing car lanes, to neglecting to pay $1000 in fines.

At school, non-white students are over-represented in school expulsions. In the real world, people of colour are over-represented in prisons. It's not that black people commit crimes more frequently or that their crimes are somehow worse - it's that, like their student counterparts, they are punished more severely for those crimes.

Moreover, even when the crimes are severe, the way we, as a society perceive those crimes, is also telling. Mass shootings and terrorism committed by young white men are pathologised, with much handwringing about the quality and availability of mental health care. Meanwhile, similar acts by black or Arab men are immediately put down to their culture - glamorisation of gun violence amongst blacks, Islamic ideology amongst Muslims.

The implication is clear: white people only commit crimes when something goes horribly wrong, while people of colour do so because of who they are. Their criminality is built in.

This implicit bias permeates every aspect of how we see race, even - incredibly - media portrayals of black murder victims and white (alleged) murderers. CNN and the BBC came under fire this week for their news reports on the shooting death of black man Sam Dubose at the hands of white police officer Ray Tensig. Both media outlets chose to illustrate their stories with a mug shot of the murder victim and a glossy portrait of the alleged murderer. In his mug shot, Dubose scowls at the camera, while his alleged murderer, in full police uniform, smiles against the backdrop of the American flag.

And so the black man still looks like the criminal. Even in death. Even when killed for no reason other than driving without a front licence plate.

Despite all this evidence of how deep racism runs in our society, our discussions around race remain stunted. As long as we stick to the outdated and incomplete view of racism as KKK-style burning crosses, then we will never understand what racism actually means today. Our eyes might insist that we don't see colour but our subconscious tells another story. A story that treats people of colour as inherently bad and in need of punishment, even as white people are regarded as worthy of help.

The criminalisation of people of colour begins long before they commit their first offence. It starts with the disproportionate punishments that are meted out to young students so readily when they are at their most vulnerable, marginalising them to the fringes of the system so early in their lives, and it continues into their adulthood. Unfortunately, it is a marginalisation from which many will never recover.