Skip to main content

Search NYU Steinhardt

Intended Consequences and Explicit Bias: The Roots of Racialized Disproportionality in NYC Discipline Policy

Dr. Rachel Lissy

In my previous post in this series I explored the events leading up to the creation of the “principal’s suspension” in New York City--a policy change that “ushered in a new era of cooperation between police and schools” and which led to the “wholesale suspension of troublesome pupils” from the city’s schools.  On February 7, 1958, one day after the Board of Education announced the suspension policy change in a press release, Superintendent William Jansen shared further instructions in a broadcast to principals.  In addition to the criteria described in the original press release (“cases which are awaiting court action involving violence or insubordination,”) Jansen instructed principals to also suspend children who “were convicted in court but sent back to school because there is no room in an appropriate institution” or “returned from institutions, perhaps prematurely.”   Jansen concluded with even more expansive and subjective parameters by informing principals that “any student with a record of serious misbehavior who continues misbehaving, may also be suspended.”   

If you worked in the City’s schools or family courts, or knew anything about social services in New York City at the time, it likely would have been obvious, even before a single suspension was handed down, that Black students were going to be disproportionately impacted by this policy change.  The very structure of New York City’s social services system made this outcome inevitable.  

The courts, schools and institutions Jansen mentioned in his broadcast had been designed at the turn of the century to meet the needs of European immigrants. Between 1890 and 1920, 25 million people immigrated to America, with the majority of those immigrants arriving and settling in New York City.  These immigrants, primarily from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, sought refuge from famine, religious persecution, violence and poverty.   A network of religious organizations emerged to meet the needs of this displaced and vulnerable population.  These organizations reflected the religious affiliations of these immigrant groups and were primarily Catholic and Jewish.  They created innovative social programs to connect immigrants with housing, jobs, healthcare, education, childcare and community. These organizations were so effective that the city came to rely upon them.  Rather than develop its own public institutions and programs, they funneled public taxpayer funds to these private religious organizations.  

Today in New York City, if a community based organization has an explicitly religious sounding name (Catholic Charities, Jewish Board of Children and Family Services), a vaguely religious sounding name (Good Shepherd Services, the New York Foundling, Hebrew Educational Society) or is referred to as a “settlement house” or a “Y,” it likely emerged during this period of time to support Catholic or Jewish immigrants. The programs and approaches developed by these organizations at the turn of the 20th Century became a model for the nation and still inform social policy today.  After-school enrichment programs, visiting nurses, playgrounds, community gardens, even the very notion of “social work” or a “case management approach” to working with individuals and families, all have their roots in these organizations.  Millions of immigrants received services, financial aid and education through these organizations that enabled them to  adjust to life in New York City, gain stable employment in the municipal or unionized workforce, and eventually start businesses, get college degrees and buy homes.

During the 1920s and 30s, the demographics of the city’s vulnerable and displaced population changed dramatically.  Immigration quotas reduced arrivals from Europe, while waves of migrants from Puerto Rico and the American South came to NYC as part of the Great Migration.  Between 1910 and 1930 the Black population of Manhattan increased from about 23,000 to 204,000.  Black migrants came to New York City fleeing the Jim Crow South and in search of economic opportunity.  Like immigrants to New York City before them, these migrants needed housing, education, jobs and social services.  However, the robust and publicly subsidized network of private religious social services that supported white European immigrants, was largely inaccessible to Black migrants.  Because Black New Yorkers were, for the most part, neither Catholic nor Jewish, private religious organizations, receiving public funds, were at that time legally allowed to deny them services.

Black New Yorkers didn’t have access to the publicly subsidized settlement houses or the Y’s that offered classes, meals and healthcare, hosted dances and picnics and provided access to housing, employment or mental health treatment. This social services neglect and discrimination led Richard Wright to quip that, "Blacks in New York City had as much access to psychiatric aid as the Negroes of Mississippi, in theory, have access to the vote." In NYC, in 1958,  there was a single clinic--Kenneth and Mamie Clarks’ Northside Center--that provided mental health care to Black New Yorkers.  

This neglect and discrimination impacted Black children, who were either provided with no services at all or had to rely upon the City’s public shelters, prisons and reformatories.  Without alternative social welfare supports, courts tended to treat Black children as delinquents and incipient criminals even when they were actually mentally ill, abused, orphaned or neglected.  Justine Wise Polier, a family court judge and member of the Citywide Citizens Committee for Children, told the Amsterdam News:

The colored delinquent has a very special problem.  There are few agencies that will serve him ... The first recourse of a colored child is the juvenile court.  A white child may have been brought to the attention of a non-legalistic agency long before he reached the juvenile court state.  He has a chance to be adjusted before his offense was really serious ... colored children are doubly handicapped.  They are simply hauled into court."

Labeling a Black child delinquent (as opposed to “dependent”) was often the only way to provide them with custodial care. Demand for state institutions and reformatories was so high, that the city established a policy mandating children be sent home after 18 months, regardless of their condition or circumstances.  This was the case even as private children’s homes had empty beds. 

Because of over-policing in Black communities like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Black children were more likely to interact with the police or be arrested for status offenses like loitering.  Once they became involved in the court system itself, they were more likely to be labeled delinquent and sent to state institutions.  Because of overcrowding in state institutions they were more likely to be released prematurely regardless of their condition or home situation. Once released, they were more likely to be sent back to segregated, overcrowded schools staffed by rookie or substitute teachers.  Accordingly, when Jansen instructed principals to suspend students “awaiting court action,” “returned perhaps prematurely,” “sent back because there is no room” or “with a record of serious misbehavior” it was inevitable that Black children would be impacted far more than the white children who had access to private institutions, functioning schools  and social services.

This policy change would begin a half century of uninterrupted growth in the number of students suspended from New York City schools--from 1,300 suspensions in 1958 to 73,000 suspensions in 2008. Concurrent with this policy change, the Board of Education would also, for the first time, place police officers inside school buildings.  Beginning with 45 police officers in 1958, this number would likewise increase over the next 50 years, to 5,000 by 2008. 

 Over the past 75 years, as exclusionary and criminalizing policies have grown in New York City and nationally, one pattern has remained constant: students of color, especially Black and indigenous students, are disproportionately impacted by all of these trends.  In New York City and nationally, Black students are suspended at 3-4 times the rate of their white peers and are more likely to experience disciplinary responses that involve the criminal justice system.  

Explanations for this disproportionality have historically focused on two main causes: 1) the implicit bias of educators who respond to the behavior of Black students with hypervigilance and harsher punishments and 2) the overzealous implementation of policies, created to keep students safe, but applied with “disparate impact” and “unintended consequences.”   Viewing the discipline gap as an "unintended consequence" or the outcome of “implicit bias” treats the policies themselves as neutral and the outcomes as unforeseeable.  Analysis of the events surrounding the creation and implementation of the “principal’s suspension” in New York City highlights that the policy was never neutral.  Instead, disproportionality was a trap laid for educators and students and baked into the policy itself.

This was obvious at the time. In fact,  in the months preceding the policy change, community groups called attention to the absence of social workers, tutors, guidance counselors, clinical supports and social services as a key source of the suffering and disorder that the Grand Jury was portraying as “crime and lawlessness.”  In this context, Black community groups found the suspension policy especially galling. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. called the suspensions a  "form of Nazism" and stated in an address that the "current outbreak of crime and violence in the New York City public schools" was the result of "the stupidity and indifference" of Mayor Wagner, Dr. Jansen and Board President Silver.  Earl Brown, who represented Harlem on the City Council, called the policy “a compounding of evil,” and claimed that ”nothing the city has done in recent times proves its inability to deal basically with its social problems [more] than its wanton, irresponsible suspension of some 700 children from the schools.”

In response to this criticism the Board of Education denied the salience of race altogether insisting "we didn't look upon the problem as a racial one; instead we studied the entire school picture of delinquency and difficult children.” Likewise, Mayor Wagner told The Amsterdam News, “We didn't even discuss the racial issue at all … we regarded the entire school picture with the problem coming from the general school picture."  This response exemplified the tendency of white northerners to insist that the problems facing black children were not only universal--but equivalent to the challenges that previous generations of immigrants were able to overcome.  In defending against accusations of racism, whites often ascribed to what historian Daryl Scott dubs an "objective theory of social mobility." They claimed that given time, new Black and Puerto Rican migrants would experience social mobility and assimilation like previous immigrant groups.   Policies that explicitly considered race or mandated integration were “forced,” “unnecessary” and “unnatural.” 

This objective theory of social mobility functioned to deny the reality and specificity of anti-Black racism.  It allowed whites to ignore all the visible and invisible, publicly funded, supports and benefits that had enabled their parents and grandparents to succeed.   Even more pernicious, whites resistant to integration were then able to point to their own success as evidence of Black inferiority.  If we could do it---why can’t they?

Black children were  neglected by the city’s social services and crammed into abysmal, poorly staffed, segregated schools.  They were then blamed and criminalized for the disorder and despair that resulted from that segregation and neglect.  It’s a pattern that still plays out in American social policy, in education, housing, healthcare, public safety, transportation, zoning etc. 

In my next and final post, I will explore how and why educators participated in the implementation, expansion and redefinition of the “principal’s suspension.”  But it is important to recognize that educators' beliefs and practices are not solely responsible for the creation of the “discipline gap” between Black and white students.  Focusing on “implicit bias” and “unintended consequences” ascribes disproportionality to vague, amorphous and unconscious processes.  This conveniently obscures and ignores the specific, deliberate and intentional ways in which discipline policies were designed to shift the blame for segregation, neglect and disorder onto the shoulders of vulnerable and traumatized Black children.  Racism and white supremacy are woven into the fabric of school discipline policies.  No amount of implicit bias training or minor tweaks to discipline codes will change that.

See more blog posts


  1. Jobs at 15 Urged for Some Pupils,” New York Times, March 22, 1960.
  2. Gene Currivan, "Education in Review: City and State Enter Upon New Program to Care for Unruly Youth in the Schools," New York Times, February 16, 1958 
  3. William Jansen, Broadcast to Principals (February 14, 1958. Series 65, File 2, Archives of the New York  City Department of Education). 
  4. Paula S. Fass, Outside in: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education (Oxford University Press, USA, 1991); David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Harvard Univ. Pr., 1974).
  5. Gerald Markowitz, and David Rosner, Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center (New York: Routledge, 2000). 
  6. Nina Bernstein’s “The lost children of Wilder: The epic struggle to change foster care,” describes the court cases during the 1970’s that led to this system being overturned.
  7. Catherine A. Stewart, "' Crazy for This Democracy': Postwar Psychoanalysis, African American Blues Narratives, and the Lafargue Clinic," American Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2013): 380.
  8. Michael Carter, "The Truth about Crime in New York's Harlem: Mugging Stories Phoney; New York Press Manufactures Crime Wave; Delinquency Higher Among Whites," Afro-American, May 8, 1943 
  9.  Judge calls Jansen in Lye Hurling Case," New York Times, October 8, 1957.
  10. Paul Bart, and Louis Kraar, "Crisis in New York: Mass Suspensions may Curb Crime in Schools but Spur it on Streets," The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1958.
  11. Edith Evans, Asbury, "Harriman Offers to Aid on Schools: Wagner Accepts," New York Times, February 10, 1958.
  12. Councilman Earl Brown, "Juvenile Delinquency," New York Amsterdam News, City, April 5, 1958.
  13. Sara Slack, "Say Race is not Cause of School Trouble," New York Amsterdam News, February 8, 1958.
  14. ibid.
  15. Daryl M. Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1997). 

Rachel Lissy, Ph.D., is a historian, consultant and capacity builder who work with educators to transform discipline policy and address racial inequity. This series draws from her personal experience as well as her dissertation, "From Rehabilitation to Punishment: The Institutionalization of Suspension Policies in Post-WWII New York City Schools."