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Michael Brown, a black unarmed teen, was two days away from starting college when he was fatally shot by a police officer. Outside of the tragic loss of this young man lies a more systemic tragedy: The perception of Brown as a low-income troublemaker trumps the perception of him as a college hopeful. Far too often, this same dynamic plays out between teachers and students in our nation’s schools.

It is well-documented that black students are suspended and expelled for the same (or lesser) offenses at a rate three times greater than white students. However, data consistently show these disparities do not exist because of differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races; they exist because young, black men in our education system are unfairly singled out for harsher penalties. School discipline is often a manifestation of implicit bias, and it is one of the few places we can directly witness its impact on the schooling of children.

Implicit bias, an unconscious positive or negative attitude toward a person or group, is complex. It arises from the pairing of two things — in the case of school discipline: being a black male and a troublemaker. This linking goes back to the image of black men as “super-predators,” a term coined in the ’90s to describe the prevalent depictions of young, black males as depraved, brutal, and violent. The image of black men as a public safety threat is reflected in overly harsh criminal justice policies, including zero-tolerance discipline in schools and media depictions of dangerous black criminals. These negative associations are so embedded in our culture that research indicates you don’t have to be racist, nor do you have to intentionally discriminate, to harbor implicit racial biases. So what happens is even well-intentioned (and seemingly unbiased) teachers and principals can perceive their young, black students as disruptive and threatening to the classroom and school safety.

Research has documented the role of implicit bias in the discipline patterns we see across the country. In 2011, a study revealed that race (being black) alone increased the likelihood of receiving disciplinary action after accounting for more than 83 other factors. But, because of its complexity, most of the conversation about discipline continues to tip-toe around issues of race and implicit bias: The federal School Discipline Consensus Project this year released a 400-page report on “strategies … to keep students engaged in school and out of the juvenile justice system” and dedicated just one paragraph to implicit bias, the role it plays, and the need for further investigation.

Given that implicit bias is so ingrained, what can we do about it?

Although often hidden from people’s conscious awareness, implicit biases are malleable and therefore can be changed. Research suggests that with intention, attention, time, and repeated practice and training, we may be able to create new associations that slowly eradicate these biases. There are mixed reviews on the success of these measures, but being exposed to counter-stereotypes, contact with other (different) groups of people, taking the perspective of others, and having a sense of accountability are several ways this might happen.

A social media campaign called #iftheygunnedmedown, launched in response to Brown’s death, unearths some of the counter-stereotypes associated with black Americans. Young people are posting two pictures — one, for example, dressed in a cap and gown and another, dressed in a baggy shirt, hat to the back, “expressing himself” with his friends. They’re asking, “If police gunned me down, which image would the media show?” The campaign serves an important purpose, challenging the implicit biases of anyone who sees these photos. However, we need to bring this level of awareness and attention to the implicit biases in everyday practices and experiences of students and educators, if we’re to see any change in the discipline disparities in our schools.

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