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Of Broken Clocks and Conservatives


There’s an old saying that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Although conservative think-tanks can’t generally boast that impressive a record, the underlying premise occasionally holds for them as well, so that once in a while they too will say something on point, even if they fail to realize the implications of their comments.

Such was the case this January, when the Manhattan Institute (home to “scholars” like Abigail Thernstrom and Heather MacDonald, who are among the most vociferous proponents of the “racism is a thing of the past” school of thought) published its report, Sex, Drugs and Delinquency in Urban and Suburban Public Schools.

The report notes that contrary to popular belief, various types of supposedly delinquent, risky and dysfunctional behaviors are really no more common in urban schools than in the “nice, safe” schools in the “nice, safe” neighborhoods to which “middle class families have been fleeing” in recent years. Indeed, in many categories of concern, the suburban kids, they note, seem to be more of a problem than their urban counterparts.

While the Institute’s study is terribly flawed on its own terms, as will be seen below, and while it continues the sorry pattern of reports on youth delinquency that invariably exaggerate the extent of teenage pathology, it is still worth pointing out some of the group’s findings, if for no other reason than the fact that those findings tend to torpedo a large body of other work put out by the same Institute. According to the report:

—Urban and suburban high school students are equally likely to have had sexual intercourse, with suburban students having had sex at an earlier age, on average;

—Suburban students are more likely to have commitment-free sex, and there are no real urban/suburban differences in rates of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, or rates of pregnancy or abortion;

—Suburban students are more likely to smoke cigarettes regularly and drink alcohol, and they tend to start drinking younger than their urban peers.

—The two groups are equally likely to use drugs, roughly equally likely to have been alcohol or drug-impaired at school, and suburban students are more likely to drive drunk;

—There are no substantial differences between urban and suburban students in terms of whether they have been in a fight, shoplifted goods, or damaged property; and finally,

—Suburban students are slightly more likely to sell drugs than their urban counterparts, and there are no major differences between urban and suburban students in terms of bringing a weapon to school, mostly because so few of either group ever do so.

Although the study doesn’t break down the data by race, the fact remains that since suburban schools are still disproportionately white and urban schools disproportionately of color, the report serves to refute the common racial stereotypes which often dog black and Latino students. Indeed, they may understate how flawed the stereotypes are.

According to additional data from the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse among other sources, black students are uniformly less likely to use drugs than white students, or to drink (especially heavily), or smoke. To the extent the Manhattan Institute merely finds rough parity in these areas, they are likely capturing in the data many whites in “urban” school districts (large metropolitan districts really) who skew the urban numbers upward, despite very low use of these substances by kids of color in those schools.

Yet what the authors ignore, and what the media has failed to pick up on as well, are the larger implications of the study’s findings, and how it undercuts much of the Institute’s regular rhetoric on race. If, as the authors note, negative views about urban schools are widespread (and although they don’t point out the racial element to these views, they surely can’t seriously deny it either), then the notion that racism is an artifact of history–a position that is central to the work of Thernstrom and other Institute denizens–sorta loses its bite.

Furthermore, if the views about urban youth of color are wrong, such that they aren’t as “pathological” as most believe, and don’t fundamentally differ from kids in the ‘burbs, in terms of their behaviors, then the rest of Thernstrom’s schtick also flies out the window: namely, the part about how black cultural pathology and bad behavior explain the bulk of their community’s problems today.

Most importantly, data in the report on drug, alcohol and cigarette use, as well as rates of fighting, theft and property damage actually could help demonstrate how prevalent racism remains in schools, especially regarding racially-disparate punishment for school rule infractions. After all, if rates of infractions are the same or worse for whites, and yet punishment for these infractions falls mostly upon students of color, something other than coincidence must be operating.

Educational researchers (at least those from less reactionary environs than the Manhattan Institute) have long pointed out that black students are consistently punished, suspended and expelled disproportionately, relative to their share of the student population and their share of school rule violations.

A recent analysis of Minnesota schools found that although African Americans represent only six percent of student enrollment statewide, they are 36 percent of students suspended. Whites, at 84 percent of enrollment, represent only 51 percent of students suspended. On a per capita basis, the suspension rate for blacks statewide is ten times higher than the rate for whites and four times higher than the national average, which at 2.5 to 1 is bad enough.

On a national level, researchers at Indiana University’s Education Policy Center and the University of Nebraska have found that black students are suspended on average at a rate that is two to three times higher than their white counterparts, even though they do not violate school rules more often.

Indeed, despite rough equivalence of school rule breaking–and evidence that for the most serious offenses whites are the most likely perps–blacks (and Latinos) continue to be singled out for discipline, for several reasons.

First, white and mostly middle-class teachers, uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the communication styles of children of color, especially from lower-income families, often presume that black student behavior is disruptive or even threatening, when it is not. They tend to “see” argumentative and disrespectful behavior in ways they would not if the perpetrator of the behavior were white.

Likewise, though kids of color are no more likely, and usually less likely to use drugs, or possess them on campus, or sell them at school, they are the ones most likely to be suspected, thus detected, and thus punished for drug violations. And although rates of weapon carrying between whites and blacks are fairly similar (with blacks leading the pack in some years, and whites in others), kids of color make up about half of all students suspended or expelled for weapon possession.

One might ask, given the problems the Manhattan Institute’s report on school delinquency poses for its “don’t worry, be happy” attitude towards racism, why intelligent scholars would gladly disseminate such a blow to their own worldview?

The answer, of course, is obvious: the goal of the Manhattan Institute as regards education has long been to discredit, by any means necessary, public schools as constituted; to encourage more support for private school vouchers, and to hasten the de facto privatization of what public entities remain.

By scaring suburban parents into believing their schools are cesspools of chaos (not the fault of those parents of course, but implicitly the schools themselves and their “faddish” and permissive policies as the Institute puts it), Manhattan hopes to expand the support for so-called school choice and undermine support for public education.

Given this mission it is worth noting, as sociologist Mike Males has brilliantly pointed out before, that schools are actually far safer and less chaotic, across the board, than most Americans believe; and teenagers of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds are far less irresponsible than is commonly accepted.

Not only that, but if any group is engaged in a disproportionate amount of pathological and dysfunctional behavior, it is precisely the suburban and mostly white parents that MI takes as its audience and seeks to warn: folks whose rates of alcohol and drug abuse (especially prescription drug abuse) have risen dramatically in recent years, even as youth rates have fallen; folks whose rates of domestic violence and child abuse remain exceedingly high; who steal an estimated $10 billion a year from their employers; who are responsible for the disproportionate bulk of the drunk driving fatalities, and who, as adults, actually are responsible for a large share of the teen pregnancies and spread of STDs among youth too, because of sexual encounters with minors.

Looking specifically at the MI’s claims about school violence, the fact is that far from increasing, violence in schools has been declining steadily in recent years, and the risk of being victimized in school is still remote–less than half the risk of being violently victimized away from school grounds. Only one in ten U.S. schools experience even a single incident of serious violence in a given school year.

Amazingly, American youth suffer at least ten times more violence at the hands of abusive parents each year than at the hands of other youth in school, and school children are approximately 70 times more likely to be murdered away from school than at school.

Since 1992, there has been a drop of nearly 50 percent in the rate of violent incidents taking place in middle and high schools, or on the way to school, with nearly half-a-million fewer incidents today than a decade ago, and less than three percent of all students will be victimized by a violent crime while in school or on the way to or from school.

In fact, in what must rank as the ultimate irony of the MI study, rates of school violence were considerably higher when the parents of today’s youth were in school, in the 70s or early 80s, than they are today. If anything, the MI should be heaping praise upon today’s youth for not following in their parents’ footsteps so far as violence is concerned, rather than warning these same parents about their children’s supposed dysfunction.

In truth, MI’s report is downright laughable in places. For example, the Institute thinks it worth asking students if they have ever had anal sex–a behavior which presumably equates to sexual deviance in their minds–and finds no real urban/suburban difference. Of course, only 7.6 percent of urban and 8.6 percent of suburban students between 9th and 12th grade have engaged in the practice (almost none of them, I’m guessing, at school) but presumably the public should be alarmed.

Likewise, the STD question. According to the report, less than five percent of urban or suburban students have ever contracted a sexually-transmitted disease. Or the abortion question, where only about three in one hundred female students, urban or suburban, have ever had one.

Even the “been drunk at school” question, though demonstrating rough geographic parity, was only answered in the affirmative by 8-9 percent of high schoolers; and the question about carrying weapons to school, though also demonstrating rough parity, also makes clear that very few–between 6-7 percent–have ever done so. When asked if they had ever stabbed or shot anyone, only 1.6 percent of suburban and 2.3 percent of urban students answered in the affirmative: totals that are admittedly too high but hardly evidence of a violence epidemic.

So let us now confront the Manhattan Institute with the magnitude of their present contradiction and dilemma. If they insist on the validity of their pathology measures for suburban schools, they will have to relinquish–in order to remain intellectually consistent–their faith in the idea that racism is largely a past-tense phenomena.

If, on the other hand, they remain committed to the notion that modern-day racism is mostly a figment of black and brown imaginations, they will have to acknowledge the faulty methodology of their school study, and instead fall back on the old stereotypes about the out-of-control behaviors of urban youth: stereotypes which of course are soundly discredited by other data, with or without the Institute’s help.

In truth of course, the answer to the dilemma is that the report is thoroughly flawed on its own merits, even as it helps confirm what others have found about the illegitimacy of common racial stereotypes.

MI makes little distinction, for example, between behaviors in which kids have engaged ever (even once) versus those they engage in regularly; it fails to link many of the so-called pathologies to in-school behavior at all, as only 3 of 34 survey questions relate to the school environment itself; and it doesn’t explain why many of the presumed pathologies should be seen as signs of moral and ethical depravity, especially when the adults to which the report speaks have far higher rates of all the behaviors listed than the teens upon whom they seek to cast aspersions.

So the study, in the end, succeeds only in helping to make a point the Institute surely never meant to make, while indicating nothing else so much as its sponsor’s profound lack of social science credibility, and its tendency to push a reactionary agenda under the guise of almost-liberal compassion and concern.

While we point out the intrinsic and rather gaping holes in the MI’s methods and overall data, let us also then praise this particular broken clock, for getting it right (at least partially) just this once, even if only in ways they would not have intended. And let us await their next unintentional admission of reality.

Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, essayist and father. He can be reached at [email protected]

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