Discussing the Roots of the Suspension and Expulsion of Young Black Boys

Suspension and expulsion in education is troubling.  Most troubling is the fact that, while Black boys account for less than 20% of the students enrolled in programs, they account for more than 50% of the children suspended and expelled.  This is only the beginning of the issue.

The questions I like to ask in my classes and trainings are “Why…?”  In this case, why would any educator, especially early childhood educators feel it is appropriate to suspend or expel children from a school? Why are Black boys disproportionately overrepresented?  Why is the disproportionality a national trend?  The short answer…that only leads to more “why” questions is implicit bias against Black boys.

Focusing on Early Childhood, but Generalizable to K-12

Implicit bias based on racial, gender, ethnic, (dis)ability, linguistic, economic status, family status and other identities becomes a topic of conversation throughout the semester of Early Childhood Education 241: Leadership and Human Relations.  The seeds were sown in the first weeks.  Come week eight, these conversations became the bedrock of discussions.

Recently, we had a discussion on taking action against an issue that negatively impacts early childhood programs, professionals, child and/or families.  Students considered a wide range of issues.  The issue that resonated most was the disproportionate suspended or expulsion of Black boys.

In the early stages of the conversation, one student, a first generation immigrant from an East Asian country asked, “Why are we only talking about Black boys?” Her question was the catalyst of what was about to unfold.

I opened the question up to the group.

An asynchronous chorus of students said variations of, “Because Black boys are disproportionately represented unlike any other population of children.”

Kelly, a White student in her early 40’s added, “It’s not only about preschool, look at the justice system and police brutality.  All that stuff.  Disproportionality is not just preschool, it’s affecting lives of Black people, people of color, people with disabilities and Black boys and men like no one else.”

For the next several minutes three students told their personal stories about injustices experienced by their Black and Latinx sons, brothers, husbands in school and the larger society.

After ten minutes, and the knowledge that we had less than an hour left of class, I stepped in.  “You’re right, disproportionality is not just a preschool problem, but where does it start…let me rephrase that, where do children begin to experience it?”

“Preschool.” Several students responded.

“Yes, that is what the data show,” I replied.

I added, “However, if we really want to begin to understand the issue from a deeper level…address the issue head-on with other early childhood professionals, really take action we have to ask ‘why?’  Why is this a widespread issue?  Why do early childhood professionals struggle to work with Black boys?  What are the root causes?”

At that moment, students were alertly silent.

“It’s history,” said Randesia, a Black women in her 40s.

“Can you tell us me more, Randesia?”

“Slavery, Jim Crow, laws…those things.”

I responded, “Absolutely.  Let me share a video that was recently shared with me.  It explains the role of minstrel caricatures that came out of Jim Crow.  Remnants of the caricatures are still with us.”

After watching the movie I said, “What are some other caricatures of people in society?”

The list began.  From Apu in the Simpsons to the sleeping Mexican.  A handful of caricatures were brought up.

With little time left in the class, I interrupted, “What are the impacts of these caricatures?”…minutes of conversation pass.

“If you don’t have any authentic relationships with people who have unfamiliar identities, what are your responses?  For example.  When I say ‘Black man’ what pops into your head.  If you have authentic personal relationships with Black men I’m willing to guess that you think of a person who you care about.  To you, that person is much more than a Black man.  If you don’t have those relationships, it’s probably a movie, television personality or person you don’t know very well….Maybe something else, whatever it is, it’s most likely a singular identity.”

A few students spoke up in agreement.

“So tell me, what do you think are the root causes of implicit biases that lead to the disproportionate representation of the suspension of Black boys?”

One White student who had early said, “I think Black boys don’t listen as well” now had a change in her thought.  She stated, “I think teachers are more focused on Black boys and see behaviors that are typical of children as bad.  If another child does the same thing it goes unnoticed. ”

Debra, a White woman in here 50s raised her had.  “You don’t see many little girls getting suspended or expelled for saying, ‘you’re not my friend.’

Minutes before the end of class, Randesia jumped in. “When teachers get mad at children for bad behaviors, most children, they get defensive.  Then the issue, that should not be an issue, escalates.  I’ve had too many calls about my son getting angry and not listening.  When I ask the teacher what he did, their response is, ‘he was being disruptive with his during group time…well, now that he’s in high school it’s his desk chair.  Or they say ‘he was talking back to me.  He’s intimidating.’  I’m like, ya, what’s that code for.  And when he was younger I knew other children were doing the same thing, even worse?  I said, ‘what’s causing him to talk back to you?  Are you threatening him with timeout?’  And you know, it only needs to happen once and then children will be expecting it to happen and get upset quicker.  I don’t know, it’s frustrating.  Teachers need to recognize what’s really happening.”

Class ended, but the conversation did not.  We picked up the next week with the topic of creating effective professional developments.

Will the students be able to take action on issues that affect children and families?  I don’t know, but hopefully, they’ll be able to reflect on their own behaviors the next time they feel the need to suspend or expel a child.  Will they recognize the root causes of their feelings against the child?  I can only hope.