My biracial son Amias and his white cousin Jacob – middle school honors students – stood a few paces apart at a local shoe store . Clutching my debit card, Amias glanced at a Nike price tag as a store clerk approached. “You can’t be in here without a parent,” he said. Apologetically placing the shoe back on the display, Amias jogged to the exit then sat on a bench waiting while Jacob continued to browse uninterrupted.
When Amias asked why he was treated differently than his cousin, overt racism was an easy, but insufficient, answer. The clerk probably didn’t attend neo-Nazi rallies on his days off It probably wasn’t intentional at all. Instead he likely acted on an unconscious gut reaction. This type of implicit bias, the unconscious prejudice that underlies our actions, is tricky because it’s often subtle and ambiguous. Some argue it doesn’t exist. As the white mother of a black son, I assure you it does.
The compounding effect of implicit bias sets Amias’ future on an entirely different trajectory than that of his white cousin. According to a new study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States, even though Amias and Jacob started life on the same rung, Jacob has upward mobility while Amias is far more likely to fall down the ladder than climb up it.
For black boys, the downward momentum starts in school. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ newly released Performance Dashboard provides a damning visual representation of racial inequities within the school system. Of students who were involved in at least one behavioral incident resulting in a suspension, 71 percent were black, though black students make up 39 percent of the student population. In contrast 9 percent of the students were white, though 29 percent of the student population is white.
There are many systemic factors that contribute to black students being disproportionately assigned suspensions, but perhaps the most unwieldy determinant is implicit bias. Black boys are punished more harshly and frequently for minor and subjective infractions. This leads to not only an increased number of suspensions, but also soaring dropout rates and a greater likelihood of incarceration than of earning a Bachelor's degree.
For example, in middle school, Amias regularly got silent lunches for “playing around” in carpool. “They just go after us because we’re the black kids and we sit together,” he insisted. I didn’t believe it until I observed carpool for myself. Girls stood huddled together, boys hunched over an iPad, kids milled about, and two white boys tossed a football – all breaking the rules as staff looked on. Yes, my son and his friends were “playing around,” but why were they the only ones being written up?
Every time Amias is singled out for the same behavior white kids get a pass on, he becomes increasingly demoralized and defensive. Is this what leads to lower grades, higher suspensions and higher dropout rates for black boys?
The discrepancies revealed by the CMS dashboard suggest that teachers and administrators respond with the same gut reaction — implicit bias — when disciplining students that caused the store clerk to deny Amias the right to buy sneakers. However, suspensions, unlike sneakers, threaten upward mobility. So, it’s time we address what Amias and all black boys already know: things are far from equal for them in Charlotte schools.