A sharp disparity in disciplinary numbers in Henrico's schools has provoked serious and understandable concern from public officials and others. The figures show that black students make up 75 percent of those suspended from school, even though they constitute only 37 percent of the student body. State Sen. Donald McEachin and Varina Supervisor Tyrone Nelson have demanded an explanation.
There are probably several. Discrimination, on some level, may be one of them. It's well established that African-Americans receive harsher punishments than whites for similar offenses, not only in the educational setting but in the criminal-justice one as well. What's more, recent search-engine analysis has demonstrated a correlation between racially charged searches and voting patterns. Those who say racism is a thing of the past are woefully mistaken.
But not all statistical disparity can be explained by bigotry or discrimination — even unintentional, subconscious discrimination by people who mean well, or think they do. It's worth noting that the city of Richmond also has a sizable gap in its treatment of black and white students (albeit one half the size of Henrico's). Other statistical disparities exist as well. Consider, for example, teen pregnancy.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, "Wide differences in birth and abortion rates also persist across racial and ethnic groups. The birthrate in 2008 for black and Hispanic teenagers was more than twice the rate for non-Hispanic white teenagers," while "the abortion rate among black teenagers was four times the rate for non-Hispanic whites." Standardized test scores also show wide disparities among racial groups in academic performance. It would be odd to suggest that, in the presence of those disparities, the numbers for disciplinary action should show no disparity at all.
Yet Henrico has the highest — read: worst — disciplinary disparity in the state. The real question, then, is the degree to which discrimination has played a role in elevating Henrico's numbers. That will not be an easy answer to tease out.
Teasing it out is important nonetheless. Suspensions and other forms of discipline should be meted out on one basis alone: individual behavior. The imposition of sanctions should be colorblind. It would be utterly wrong for the county to punish any African-American student more harshly than a white student for an equivalent offense. By the same token, it also would be wrong for the county — or any other jurisdiction — to ignore individual behavior that merits sanction in order to achieve false statistical parity. That would only paper over other problems that also cry out for redress.