Classic New York Times:

Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools than other students, according to new data from theDepartment of Education.

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

“Education is the civil rights of our generation,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a telephone briefing with reporters on Monday. “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

Well, that settles it. Must be racism. Read the whole story, and search in vain for any suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion have something to do with disproportionate rates of bad behavior. Could this behavior have something to do with the fact that almost three times as many black kids live in single parent homes as white kids do, and almost twice as many Hispanic kids do, versus white (citation here)? Do you suppose the disproportionate number of minority kids who live in poverty (percentage wise, the black and Hispanic poverty rate is three times that of the white rate) has anything to do with these school discipline stats?

No, poverty and single parenthood can’t have anything to do with it. It must be racism. The NYT cites exactly two “expert” sources to explain the data: the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the Education Secretary himself said that these numbers mean that minority kids are suffering from a violation of “the principle of equity.” He will be making the data public today at a Howard University speech he’s calling a “major civil rights announcement.” It is possible that Arne Duncan’s speech will be more expansive and complex than his quote in this story indicates. After all, a reporter who thinks that by talking to the ACLU and the SPLC, she’s covered the waterfront on this story, may well have heard Duncan’s telephone remarks selectively. We’ll see.

If by “civil rights,” however, Duncan believes that school disciplinarians are the 21st century of equivalent of Bull Connor, that’s another story. I am open to the idea that racism could be behind these numbers to a certain extent. But the standard liberal idea that disproportionate racial numbers is proof on its face of racial bias is certainly wrong — especially when you consider that two factors that have a lot to do with bad juvenile behavior, growing up in a single-parent home and poverty, are so disproportionately present in minority communities, versus whites. Did this factor not even occur to the Times reporter?

UPDATE: If you look at other reports from the same conference call with Sec. Duncan (e.g., this one from USA Today), you see that this is how Duncan himself spun the results. For example:

“The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters.

I understand that the administration is going to have its particular spin on things. But is it too much to ask reporters to, you know, question these things? Maybe they’re going to wait until the full data are released today. If the data show that minority kids face harsher punishments for the same offenses as white kids, then that’s pretty clearly a sign of racism. But if minority kids are getting in trouble more than white kids, I would want to look at poverty and single parenthood as factors, instead of simply looking at disparate impact and assuming that racism must be to blame.