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"Denzel Washington Is Making Sense" - WSJ Opinion

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Denzel Washington Is Making Sense
He emphasizes the need for discipline at home, while Betsy DeVos considers withdrawing a decree against discipline at school.

By Jason L. Riley
Nov. 28, 2017 7:10 p.m. ET

Denzel Washington made some remarks the other day that bear highlighting if only because sensible social commentary from Hollywood celebrities is so rare.

At a New York screening of Mr. Washington’s latest film, “ Roman J. Israel, Esq. ,” the actor was asked by a reporter: “For black people in particular, do you think that we can truly make change as things are right now?”

Mr. Washington, who is 62, gave a pointed response. “Well, it starts in the home. If the father is not in the home, the boy will find a father in the streets. I saw it in my generation and every generation before me and every one since.” He added, “If the streets raise you, then the judge becomes your mother and prison becomes your home.”

In the film, Mr. Washington portrays a defense attorney, and reporters at the screening pressed him to weigh in on current debates about race and the U.S. criminal justice system. Instead, the actor doubled down on his message of strong families and personal responsibility. “It starts with how you raise your children,” he said. “If a young man doesn’t have a father figure, he’ll go find a father figure. So you can’t blame the system. It’s unfortunate that we make such easy work for them.”

What is remarkable is not that the Oscar-winning actor, who has been the national spokesman for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America since 1992, expressed these sentiments. Such talk is commonplace in black churches and beauty salons and barbershops and community centers. What’s remarkable is that Mr. Washington opted to say what he did within earshot of so many whites. Black political leaders and activist organizations, in an effort to raise money and stay relevant, much prefer to focus on racial prejudice when publicly discussing black-white disparities. Mr. Washington broke with that protocol. In private, those on the black left might acknowledge that black children watch too much television and read too few books. In public, however, they blame the achievement gap on biased standardized tests and racist school administrators.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told reporters Monday that the administration is “looking closely” at reversing the Obama administration’s controversial approach to school discipline, which urged schools to take race into account when deciding whether to suspend a disruptive student. “It would be premature to say anything about that right now, but we want to make sure that all students have an opportunity to learn in an environment that’s safe,” she added. A 2014 guidance letter sent by Mrs. DeVos’s predecessor warned school districts that any racial imbalance in suspension and expulsion rates could trigger a federal civil-rights investigation. Given that black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend violent schools and thus more likely to become the targets of bullies, policies that go easy on misbehaving students inevitably hurt low-income minorities the most.

Rescinding the Obama guidance is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a first step. What’s also needed, and what Mrs. DeVos is well-positioned to provide via her bully pulpit, is a new emphasis on prioritizing the needs of low-income minority children who are in school to get an education rather than make trouble for others.

The Philadelphia public school system’s decision to ban out-of-school suspensions for lesser offenses and to shorten suspensions for more serious rule-breaking predated the guidance letter. So did Chicago’s move to nix automatic 10-day suspensions and the Oakland, Calif., school district’s agreement to impose “targeted reductions in the overall use of student suspensions; suspensions for African American students, Latino students, and students receiving special education services; and African American students suspended for defiance.”

School systems that are ideologically predisposed to coddle violent and disruptive students probably will continue these policies with or without the federal government’s input. If schools become too chaotic, more-affluent families will opt for private schools or move to neighborhoods with safer public schools. But most underprivileged black children will be stuck where they are, once again subjected to the latest education fad—like busing in the 1970s or Ebonics in the 1990s—by policy makers who will pay no price whatsoever for their ruinous experiments. What mother is eager to send her child off to a school that indulges students who exhibit “defiance”? How can we rightfully expect teachers to teach—and students learn—in such an environment?

Despite mounds of empirical evidence that black children are suspended at higher rates than whites due to their behavior and not racially biased educators, the school-to-prison pipeline explanation for the mass incarceration of blacks has become an article of faith among progressives. But if Mr. Washington is correct, and the social science suggests that he is, the problem isn’t too much discipline at school but too little discipline at home.
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2017-11-30 -04:00
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