School House Shock: Bias Against Blacks Often Starts in the Classroom

Teachers are more likely to label African American students as troublemakers, which can have disastrous implications down the line.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announcing that criminal charges would be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, on May 1. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

May 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

After riots erupted across Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, the unrest in Charm City was quickly compared to the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. After all, both events were precipitated by alleged police violence against unarmed young men. However, when the officers charged in Gray’s death were arrested and their mug shots released, people quickly realized Baltimore was not Ferguson.

Unlike Ferguson, Baltimore boasts a black mayor, a black police commissioner, a black state’s attorney, and a sizable black presence in law enforcement. Although Ferguson’s police department is just 5.6 percent black, African Americans make up approximately 44 percent of Baltimore’s ranks, and half of the officers charged in Gray’s death are black. In spite of its high-ranking African American officials, Baltimore has paid $5.7 million in police brutality settlements, primarily to blacks, since 2011.

So what gives? A new study examining unconscious bias against African Americans in the school system may explain why racial tensions run high in communities like Baltimore, even when many of those in positions of power are black.

In Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students, Stanford psychologists Jennifer Eberhardt and Jason Okonofua tried to figure out why black students are punished more harshly by teachers than are their white counterparts.

“The fact that black children are disproportionately disciplined in school is beyond dispute,” Eberhardt told the Stanford News Service. “What is less clear is why.”

The researchers conducted two experiments to see if teachers reacted differently to misbehaving students of different races. Eberhardt and Okonofua suspected racial stereotypes contribute to how harshly students’ behavior is judged and how teachers interact with them.

In the first experiment, teachers were given school records for several students that included two infractions and asked whether or not the student was a troublemaker. The psychologists randomly assigned names to each student that could have signified their race (e.g., LaShawn vs. Jake). In the second experiment, Eberhardt and Okonofua asked teachers whether or not they thought the infractions indicated a pattern of misbehavior, and whether they thought they would need to suspend the student in the future.

Despite the similarity of the students’ records, the pair found that “race not only can influence how perceivers interpret a specific behavior, but also can enhance perceivers’ detection of behavioral patterns across time.” In most cases, teachers—including black ones—were more likely to label students they believed were black as troublemakers. Generations of antiblack sentiment and negative portrayals of African Americans in the media have caused many to internalize stereotypes about black folks, which invariably trickles into the classroom.

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“Like with black cops and police bias, black teachers in public schools are part of a system that has a long history of institutionalized discrimination,” says Melinda D. Anderson, a Washington, D.C.–based education writer and parent activist. “They are actors in a much larger production, not a one-person play. And they are susceptible to the same messages that permeate society and schools: White means right and black means lack.”

Unfortunately, judging the behavior of kids of color more harshly in school can have disastrous effects down the line. Black students are more likely to get pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system than their white counterparts. A full 40 percent of students expelled from school each year are black, and African Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of all “in school” arrests. Mix in the reality that many kids of color already live in poverty, and constantly being disciplined more harshly in school can have tragic, long-lasting consequences.

And, as we’ve seen in Baltimore, this type of overreaction and response to African Americans goes far beyond the classroom.

“Most social relationships entail repeated encounters,” Okonofua told Stanford News Service. “Interactions between police officers and civilians, between employers and employees, between prison guards and prisoners all may be subject to the sort of stereotype escalation effect we have identified in our research.”