In each police-related death recently dominating the headlines, authorities overreacted to black men’s behaviors as if they were life-threatening.
On Staten Island, an unarmed Eric Garner was wrestled to the ground by five police officers and strangled to death over selling loose cigarettes on the street. In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was gunned down after an altercation over walking in the street and under suspicion of stealing cigarillos from a convenience store. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, was shot within two seconds of police pulling up to the playground where he was playing with a toy gun, despite a 911 caller’s tip that it probably was a toy. And a famous self-appointed authority, George Zimmerman, shot unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin simply for walking through his gated community.
The common theme in these cases? An overreaction to a perceived threat of black criminality.
In a report issued in December by the Discipline Disparities Collaborative, a group of 26 expert researchers, educators, and child advocates (including ourselves), we found that the same dynamic is prevalent in schools, where authorities suspend and arrest black youth for minor misbehavior at alarming rates.
Federal data released in March 2014 show that black students are suspended at three times the rate of their white counterparts. Research from the collaborative reveals that these disparities routinely aren’t explained by more serious misbehavior by black and brown children: White children doing the same things often get less punitive consequences.
Excessive discipline comes at a steep cost. Studies show a single suspension in the ninth grade is correlated with a doubled chance of dropping out and that suspended or expelled students are three times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
In both schooling and policing, then, young people of color—especially black girls and boys—are disciplined and punished excessively far too often for minor behaviors, with consequences lethal to their life prospects.
We see several shared dynamics at play.
First, according to research conducted by collaborative member Phillip Goff and his colleagues, Americans tend to perceive black boys as older and more culpable than they are. (Indeed, an officer thought 12 year-old Rice was about 20.) Police also use deadly force much faster and more often against black men in ambiguous situations that could easily be defused. And school data consistently show that youth of color are overwhelmingly suspended not for carrying weapons or drugs, but for subjective offenses like "defiance" or "insubordination" that require judgment calls and can fuel biased overreaction.
Second, as noted in the report from the collaborative, stereotypes as old as the U.S. slavery system, which enforced total social control over blacks, continue to frame African American males in particular as threats to order and safety. Emerging research on implicit bias shows the majority of Americans of all races continue to unconsciously associate black men with danger and criminality—and even apes. That Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, described Brown to the grand jury as looking like a "demon" is a telling example of how black males are often perceived as hyper-threatening and even less than human.
Third, as noted in the report, because racial segregation in housing and schools remains the norm in the United States, many Americans (whether black, white, or brown) grow up with too little opportunity to form cross-racial relationships that might challenge the stereotypes. Although teachers and police interact across race lines more than people in many other professions, they rarely interact as equals with the people of color they serve. Instead, many commute into neighborhoods and schools as authority figures, often carrying a hyper-vigilant—if unconscious—fear of the people they are assigned to teach and protect.
Notably, the country’s learning institutions have increasingly become venues for policing, as schools hire more security officers to patrol hallways and enforce discipline. The number of school-based security officers on campuses nationwide increased steadily between 1997 and 2003, with the number of so-called "school resource officers" climbing again since Sandy Hook—in part thanks to $45 million in federal aid to hire more school police. Studies are mixed on the effectiveness of police in making schools safer, but data does show that their presence actually increases the likelihood that youth of color are suspended, arrested, and issued court summonses for offenses as minor as writing graffiti on desks, refusing to take off a hat, or talking back to an officer.
Yet improvements can be made. A growing protest movement is forcing law-enforcement departments to implement anti-bias training so police can better understand and monitor their own behavior. Educators are starting to consider replacing excessive suspensions and arrests with strategies that build supportive relationships that can prevent conflicts in the first place. As our most recent report recommends, educators can analyze their disciplinary data for disparities, engage in frank conversations about race and their interactions with students, and test alternatives to suspension and arrest to address conflict and rule-breaking.
In particular, educators can work to build relationships between students and staff so that young people are approached as youth in need of ongoing support, not as threats. For example, at San Diego’s Gompers Preparatory Academy, a school previously plagued by suspensions, educators now address students who break rules by asking them what’s going on and what they need. Essentially, educators at the school treat young people as they’d treat their own kids. Gompers has vastly decreased suspensions and improved student attendance; it now even ensures 100 percent of its seniors enroll in college.
When educators and police officers relate humanely to the young people and communities they serve, they tend to stop overreacting to perceived threats. How might history be different if police had reacted, not overreacted, to Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown?