Theory: Maybe Black Toddlers Are Suspended From Preschool More Because of Racism

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In 2011, over 8,000 kids were suspended from preschool — preschool! — in America. More than half were black, despite comprising less than half of the student population. Sure, we can entertain a lot of theories why this is the case, but I am going to go with this one: America has a problem with racism.

The odds are probably better than even that you will be annoyed by that. Which is fine. I accept that response. And there are a lot of possibilities that could explain how this bit of data is an aberration. As the Associated Press reports, the data, which will be released on Friday, comes from the civil rights section of the Department of Education. "[B]lack children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in schools, but almost half of the students suspended more than once," the AP says. Via Politico comes the number of suspensions, over 8,000 in that year.

Some possible explanations that aren't racism: Perhaps the data is flawed. Maybe there are regional oddities at play, though, as the AP notes, "six percent of the nation's districts with preschools reported suspending at least one preschool child," suggesting that it isn't. Maybe more black kids go to preschool in urban areas that have stricter policies aimed at how they play, like banning simulated gunplay, but the gap between 18 percent of attendees and 50-plus percent of suspensions would mean that those preschools were nearly empty a lot of the time.

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Taking this further: Maybe there are certain cultural differences in preschools that have more black students. Or, as people will certainly postulate, maybe there is something inherent in black culture or black people that causes more misbehavior.

When I wrote about the black unemployment rate earlier this month, which has always been at least 60 percent higher than the rate for whites, The Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie described the two ways in which you could react to that data. "It leaves you with two options," he tweeted. "Either blacks are lazier than whites, or they live with a powerful legacy of discrimination, segregation and economic disenfranchisement." This situation offers the same choice, once you assume that the data is sound and representative. Maybe black kids are more poorly behaved than white kids. Or maybe there is racism entrenched so deeply in American culture that it permeates to how we treat four-year-olds.

There is another data point worth isolating on this topic. A study from the Department of Education that was released in 2012 showed that minority students are suspended from school at disproportionate rates compared to white kids. That's school at every level. And what's more, black and Latino kids were more likely to be arrested for acting out in school. Black students represented 24 percent of the student population examined, 35 percent of arrests. White kids were 31 percent of enrollment and 21 percent of arrests.

After that study was reported in The Washington Post, Washington City Paper rounded up commenters' responses, which probably serve as a guide to the most virulent reactions to this preschool study. For example: "The problem is that Blacks break the rules more often so they get suspended more often. Its time we teach all of our children ethics and morality and how to act properly." Or: "Black students get suspended more because their behavior is awful. Their culture has been corrupted."

Those responses shed light on the data, but not in the way that their authors expect. The ingrained belief that black people are more likely to misbehave, that their culture is "corrupted," is a racist belief. And it may be shared by the people deciding whether or not a four-year-old who breaks a rule in preschool needs to be sent home. The simplest answer, as freshman philosophy students love to remind us, is the one that should be assumed. The simplest answer is that America has deep-rooted racist beliefs.

In January, a police organization in Nebraska came under fire for showing a black male acting unruly and swearing. "You are literally watching 'the cycle' of violence continue right in front of your eyes," the association explained to the officers, as the Daily News reported. The video showed a kid in diapers; the police were warning about how he exemplified a culture of violence.

Maybe that's unique to Omaha, Nebraska. Maybe the Department of Education's data is skewed. Or maybe, as Bouie put it, that black kid is growing up "with a powerful legacy of discrimination, segregation and economic disenfranchisement." 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.