Politics,Economics and The Struggle To Survive In America



Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias

Posted by Jerrald J President on June 3, 2021 at 7:50 AM



  Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias



Black students in the United States are subject to disciplinary action at rates much higher than their white counterparts. These disciplinary actions put students at higher risk for negative life outcomes, including involvement in the criminal justice system. Using federal data covering over 32 million students at nearly 96,000 schools, our research demonstrates that the disciplinary gap between black and white students across five types of disciplinary actions is associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Our work emphasizes the need for policy targeting racial disparities in education and psychological bias.



There are substantial gaps in educational outcomes between black and white students in the United States. Recently, increased attention has focused on differences in the rates at which black and white students are disciplined, finding that black students are more likely to be seen as problematic and more likely to be punished than white students are for the same offense. Although these disparities suggest that racial biases are a contributor, no previous research has shown associations with psychological measurements of bias and disciplinary outcomes. We show that county-level estimates of racial bias, as measured using data from approximately 1.6 million visitors to the Project Implicit website, are associated with racial disciplinary disparities across approximately 96,000 schools in the United States, covering around 32 million white and black students. These associations do not extend to sexuality biases, showing the specificity of the effect. These findings suggest that acknowledging that racial biases and racial disparities in education go hand-in-hand may be an important step in resolving both of these social ills.


educationracial disparitiesschool disciplineracial biassocial psychology

In comparison with white Americans, black Americans exhibit poorer educational outcomes across a range of metrics. One outcome of particular concern is the gap in disciplinary actions (1, 2). Research using administrative datasets and longitudinal samples clearly show that black American students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled (3, 4) and, conditional on an office referral, more likely to receive stiffer punishments (5, 6). These disparities are particularly concerning as they are associated with long-term outcomes, including employment (7) and involvement in the criminal justice system (8).


As complex social phenomena, racial differences in disciplinary outcomes are multiply determined (2). However, racial bias is thought to be one such determinant. For instance, a controlled experiment using hypothetical vignettes found that in comparison with white students, teachers were more likely to view the same behavior from black students as being indicative of a long-term problem and deserving of suspension (9). Similarly, discipline data from an urban high school showed that black students were especially likely to be referred to the office for discipline on the basis of defiant behavior—a relatively subjective category of misbehavior in comparison with others they examined, including truancy or fighting (10). Overall, there is consistent evidence that black students’ behaviors are both perceived as more problematic and are punished more harshly compared with white students. However, to our knowledge, there has been no work assessing whether racial bias is directly associated with disciplinary disparities. Additionally, there has been no work assessing how community-level racial bias is associated with educational disparities.


Psychological measurements of racial bias typically occur through one of two ways. Either individuals are asked to self-report their relative attitudes toward different racial groups (i.e., “explicit bias”;) or via methods designed to assess automatic associations with people of different races. The “implicit biases” assessed by the latter technique are thought to reflect cognitive and affective response components that are difficult to control. Accordingly, implicit attitudes should overcome some of the social-desirability biases associated with self-report (11). Recently, researchers have begun aggregating these measures up to geographical regions such as counties or states, finding that regional-level measures of implicit and explicit racial bias are associated with racial disparities in key social outcomes, although the relative contributions are not consistent across studies (12⇓–14). For example, one study found that black Americans had reduced access to healthcare and increased rates of death due to circulatory disease in comparison with whites in counties with higher levels of explicit racial bias against blacks (12). They found no such associations for implicit racial bias. In contrast, other work found that the disproportionate use of lethal force by police on black Americans was associated with regional implicit biases but not with explicit biases (14). As such, it is important to assess both types of bias when seeking to understand the relationship between regional-level bias and behavioral outcomes.


Regional levels of bias could be associated with the size of racial student disciplinary disparities for a number of reasons. We highlight several that are likely to be driven by intergroup contact and/or sociopolitical power of the majority group. First, being in an area with elevated racial bias likely means encountering individuals who have negative feelings and beliefs about one’s group and whose actions within and/or outside of an educational setting could contribute to disciplinary disparities. For example, if teachers and administrators are biased, then they may be more likely to make decisions that are unfavorable to black students, such as deciding that a given misbehavior is worthy of disciplinary action. Similarly, if members of the community are biased, they may more readily perceive transgressions from black students than from white students. The consequences of such interactions may be especially likely to lead to disparate outcomes in high-bias regions when there is ample opportunity for these sorts of intergroup interactions to take place (i.e., intergroup contact is frequent). Second, the norms and structural factors that characterize regions higher in bias may constrain even those individuals who are not biased themselves into engaging in or suborning actions that negatively impact students of color (15, 16). For example, biased administrators or local voters may use their sociopolitical power to support policies that disproportionately punish students of color, such as zero-tolerance policies or implementation of random drug sweeps (17). Additionally, biases assessed at the regional level might reflect affordances of the local environment (e.g., confederate statues, biased media) that undergird these biases and prime behaviors that contribute to disciplinary disparities (18), especially insofar as these affordances reflect the attitudes of the sociopolitically powerful. Overall, these and other reasons, and the likely possibility that they work in concert to inform behavior (19), substantiate the possibility that there will be a relationship between regional bias and disciplinary outcomes.


Most previous research has focused on out-of-school suspensions—likely because they are the most frequently used and are regularly found to be associated with negative outcomes (20, 21). However, other disciplinary outcomes, although used less often, are also likely damaging to students (22). For instance, school arrests have been associated with increased risk of engaging in antisocial behavior (23) and of dropping out (8). In addition, although alternative forms of discipline (e.g., in-school suspension) are intended to insulate students from the negative consequences of exclusionary discipline, the criteria by which students are assigned the former kind of discipline often remain vulnerable to bias (24). As such, examining the presence and basis of disparities in the application of a wide range of disciplinary actions is warranted.

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