The Origins of the Racial Gap in School Suspension and Expulsion

Jayanti Owens,
Sara McLanahan
Year of publication
The use of suspension and expulsion in U.S. schools has increased by 50% over the past four decades. Black boys face nearly three times higher rates of these exclusionary tactics than White boys. Interpersonal racial discrimination, or harsher disciplinary responses to Black boys, despite their entering school with the same behaviors and coming from similar family and school contexts, is widely assumed to help explain these racial disparities, but has not been thoroughly tested outside laboratory experiments. We measure the role of interpersonal racial discrimination outside the lab in order to parse its contribution relative to three other common explanations for the racial gap in exclusionary discipline. Using data from the Fragile Families Study, we find that interpersonal discrimination accounts for 30% of the Black/White gap in elementary school suspension and expulsion. Consistent with prior research on racial threat, we find that the concentration of Black boys in punitive schools serving low-income and minority students accounts for roughly 10% of the racial gap. Racial differences in family structure and socioeconomic resources account for another 10%, and differences in boys’ behavior at the time they enter kindergarten account for only 5% percent. Building on prior work on structural discrimination, we argue that interpersonal discrimination also plays an important role and accounts for a larger share of the racial gap than other common explanations in the literature. We also help reconcile previously conflicting results about the role of behavior differences in suspension rates.

Suggested Citation

Owens, J., & McLanahan, S. (2018). The Origins of the Racial Gap in School Suspension and Expulsion.