Stories about black school children being more harshly treated or punished than white children has become an old and disturbing media staple, one that waxes and wanes with the frequency of its retelling, frequently featuring lurid and shocking details. But despite the popularity of this news trope, most reported accounts typically fail to offer much in the way of credible justification for why teachers might behave in such a racially-prejudiced way toward their students.
Now, in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible, a recent study conducted by team of education researchers at several major U.S. universities offers an illuminating theory: many teachers harbor implicit biases against the black faces of their students.
According to a preliminary study published earlier this month in the journal Contemporary Education Psychology, prospective teachers are more likely to perceive the faces of black adults as being angry compared to the faces of white adults, even in instances where neither group is emotionally expressive. Similarly, the researchers found that the teachers-in-training viewed the behavior of black children as more hostile than similar behavior of white children.
This study adds to the scholarly heft of previous scholarly work, as well as countless anecdotes which suggest that white teachers and administrators discipline black students more harshly than white students. While such findings — and media accounts they generate — are disturbing to the point of alarm, they nevertheless contain a logic that is hard to deny. What’s more, these new findings help to explain the persistence of discrimination that follows black children into adulthood, as their lives move from classrooms to workplaces and other realities of American society.
Indeed, a teacher’s racially biased misperceptions are merely the start of a cascading series of negative consequences on students in their formative years. Far too many teachers have been found to underestimate the academic talent and learning capability of black students. As early as preschool, these students tend to get railroaded disproportionately into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
Amy Halberstadt, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University and lead author of the Contemporary Education Psychology paper on the study, said in an interview with Science Daily that it’s well known black students are more likely to be suspended, expelled and disciplined than white students due to a disconnect between white teachers and black students.
“With this study, we wanted to explore whether people going into education showed indications of racialized anger bias — detecting anger where none exists,” said Halberstadt, who led the team of researchers from North Carolina State University, Northeastern University, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is a first step toward understanding whether cultural mismatches and racial prejudice are playing a role in the disproportionate number of black students facing disciplinary action.”
To test their theory, the researchers showed 40 undergraduate students, all of whom planned to become K-12 teachers, photos of black and white men and women expressing emotions, and asked the participants to identify the relevant emotions the photos depicted. Additionally, they showed the prospective teachers videos of black and white boys engaged in inappropriate behavior for a school setting — such as tossing a classmate’s work in the trash or heckling another student’s presentation — and asked them to describe the relative hostility of those students.
According to the study’s findings, the future teachers were 1.5 times more likely to be accurate at interpreting emotions in the faces of white men and women compared to the faces of black men and women. Additionally, the participants demonstrated a higher propensity to misjudge non-angry black faces as angry than they did for non-angry white faces.
Most strikingly, the results were exaggerated in that the black adult faces were three times more likely to be judged as angry compared to the white adult faces, even when they were not. Similarly, the prospective teachers attributed significantly more hostility to the black boys in the videos than they did to the white boys. For example, on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not hostile at all) to 5 (very hostile), the respondents gave an average rating of 3.37 for black boys’ behaviors, while giving white boys a 2.12 rating for similar behaviors.
Civil rights advocates, as well as the general public, have long been aware of racial disparities in school discipline, according to a report issued last year by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Thurgood Marshall Institute. In that report, “Locked out of the Classroom: How Implicit Bias Contributes to Disparities in School Discipline,” authors Ajmel Quereshi, senior counsel for the LDF, and Jason Okonofua, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, noted that more than 40 years ago, observers noted disparities in the rate that black students were suspended from school compared to white students.
“As early as 1974, civil rights advocates highlighted that black students were two to three times more likely to be suspended than white students,” Quereshi and Okonofua write. “Sadly, little progress has been made in reducing these disparities.”
While 6% of all K-12 students received one or more out-of- school suspensions, the percentage is 18% for black boys; 10% for black girls; 5% for white boys; and 2% for white girls.
Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children. Black children represent only 19% of preschool enrollment [they account for] 47% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. White children represent 41% of preschool enroll- ment, but [only] 28% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
But more than merely affirming what many already know, the new study advances the knowledge about implicit bias held by an incoming generation of teachers and offers an framework for future scholarship to address and fix the problem — in schools and elsewhere in our society.
In her Science Daily interview, Halderstadt noted that while the findings are disappointing, they also point the way toward better education for future public school teachers — all of whom will need to have the ability to properly educate a mélange of races and ethnicities in their classrooms.
“If we don’t even know that we’re doing this, then we can’t change,” she said. “So the first step is to become aware and then we can work on our changes.”