ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
This week, the nation marked the integration of Little Rock High School with the help of federal troops 50 years ago. The commemoration came on the heels of a mass demonstration in Jena, Louisiana, to protest what demonstrators said was the overly harsh treatment of some African-American students involved in a racially tinged fight.
Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt first broke the Jena story and has been following it closely. This week, he also reported that an analysis of government data shows that today's black students face much harsher discipline in school than any other ethnic group nationwide.
That's in every state except one - Idaho.
Howard Witt joins us from member station KUHF in Houston.
Thanks for being with us.
Mr. HOWARD WITT (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): I'm happy to be here. Thank you.
SEABROOK: First, tell me how you compiled this data. Where did you get the numbers? How did you crunch them?
Mr. WITT: Yes, as a matter of fact, the numbers come from the U.S. Department of Education, but they don't make it very easy to find them. You have to dig around in an obscure corner of their Web site. You have to download a bunch of spreadsheets and kind of build your own spreadsheet from the raw numbers. But once I did that and following a methodology that professional sociologists used to look at these numbers - by the way, I didn't make it up - that's when I was able to draw these conclusions. So the numbers are there, but they're not easy to find and they're certainly not easy to understand.
SEABROOK: And some of the conclusions are staggering. I mean, even when black students make up just a tiny fraction of the school's total population, they can make up many times more suspensions and expulsions.
Mr. WITT: Exactly. What you find on a nationwide basis, averaging across the whole country, that black students are suspended and expelled at nearly three times the rate that white students are. And they are suspended and expelled at more than twice the rate of their proportion of the population.
SEABROOK: Is this for equal offenses that they're getting such disproportionate discipline?
Mr. WITT: Yes, that's precisely what is looked at by the researchers when they look at this data. They're finding that black students and white students who commit similar offenses, be it talking out of school, tardy, you know, whatever the category offenses, the blacks are consistently disciplined more severely than the whites.
SEABROOK: Let's talk real states. Which one's the worst here?
Mr. WITT: What I found is that some of the worst states are the states with the least diverse populations. That is not surprising when you understand what professional sociologists think it lies behind part of this problem, and that is the cultural disconnect between white teachers and minority students.
The vast majority of teachers in this country - I think, it's something more than 85 percent are white. And what researchers have found consistently is that white teachers will interpret behavior of black students different than behavior from white students.
So for instance, young black males who might have a way of questioning a teacher or speaking out that is kind of perhaps more assertive than a white student, that black student questioning the teacher might be viewed as disrupting the class.
Whereas, a white student asking the same question, that's regarded as just a normal inquisitive student. And you multiply this kind of cultural misperceptions over and over, and you start to see what accounts for what researchers believe is a big chunk of this problem.
SEABROOK: Can you account for differences in economic class in these rather than race? I mean, and then there are always things that are difficult to untangle.
Mr. WITT: Yes, it's an excellent question and, in fact, this is a very complex problem. That is why it has persisted for more than 25 years. One of the factors certainly is socioeconomic differences, but the researchers have found that when they control for socioeconomic status and their statistical models, there is still a substantial portion of this discipline that cannot be explained by socioeconomic factors.
For example, what they find is that there are many black students who come from upper-income families, from stable neighborhoods, who when you compare them to the discipline that their white peers are receiving, the blacks are still being disciplined out of proportion to the white students.
SEABROOK: Howard Witt, what's going on with Idaho? Why is it the one state in the nation where you weren't finding this…
Mr. WITT: That's a good question.
SEABROOK: …big discrepancy?
Mr. WITT: That's a great question. I don't know that answer to that. There are, obviously, not very many black students in Idaho. It's a mostly-white state any way. Perhaps I should take a trip out there.
There's another dimension to this that I found fascinating that I want to mention. And that is the reaction to this story. There's a very vehement counter-reaction from a lot of white readers of this story and it's, either…
SEABROOK: But how can you tell they're white readers?
Mr. WITT: Oftentimes, these posters will identify themselves as white. They'll say as a white parent, as a white teacher, something like that. The reactions fall on to, basically, two categories - about half of the people simply don't believe in numbers. The other half say, what would you expect, black students misbehave more often. That's a fallacious way of looking at this data because, in fact, it's getting cause and effect pretty much backwards.
SEABROOK: Are you saying that of all the reaction you've gotten from this story that no one or that very few people have said, schools must be treating these two groups differently?
Mr. WITT: Many people who identify themselves as African-American in their responses are saying, you know, thank goodness, someone is actually talking about this. We've known about this for years. It's part of this whole chasm in our perceptions about race in this country that blacks perceive a problem and experience a problem. And whites oftentimes either don't want to believe the problem exists or try to explain it away. It's - the same thing that was at the root of the whole crisis in Jena.
SEABROOK: Exactly. That's exactly what I was thinking is that so much about this week has highlighted to us as Americans. The difference between where we, or some of us think we are on race relations and where we actually are in this country.
Mr. WITT: That's exactly right. It's easy for us to pat ourselves on the back and say, look how far we've come since Little Rock. Look how far we've come since the civil rights struggles…
SEABROOK: Or the principal says, go ahead. Sit under that tree, as in Jena.
Mr. WITT: Exactly. But what we have now is this new generation of civil rights problems that are much more subtle, much less obvious than a local white sheriff in the Deep South seeking, you know, dogs(ph) on black protesters are hosing them down, you know.
Today, it's things that are happening behind courtroom doors, behind schoolroom doors and therefore it's much harder to grapple with it and much easier for us to say that, on the surface, everything looks great, but it's underneath where there is these riptides of racism and that are still very much at work.
SEABROOK: Howard Witt is the southwest bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune. He joined us from the studios of KUHF in Houston.
Thanks very much for talking for talking with us.
Mr. WITT: My pleasure.