Just How Racist Are Schoolteachers?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


It’s no secret that black kids are more likely to be suspended from school than white kids—three times more likely, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights. And now a study published this week in Psychological Science may shed some light on just how much of a role racial bias on the part of educators may play.

Stanford psychology grad student Jason Okonofua and professor Jennifer Eberhardt designed a study where active K-12 teachers from across the country were presented with mocked-up disciplinary records showing a student who had misbehaved twice. Both infractions were relatively minor: one was for insubordination, the other for class disturbance. The records’ substance never changed, but some bore stereotypically black names (Darnell or Deshawn) while others had stereotypically white names (Jake or Greg). Teachers answered a series of questions about how troubled they were by the infractions reflected in the documents, how severe the appropriate discipline should be, and the likelihood that the student was “a troublemaker.”

The teachers’ responses after learning about the first infraction were about equal, regardless of the student’s perceived race. But after hearing about the second infraction, a gap in discipline emerged: On a scale of one to seven, teachers rated the appropriate severity of discipline at just over five for students perceived to be black, compared to just over four for students perceived to be white. That may not seem like a big difference, but on one-to-seven scale, a single point is a 14 percent increase—well beyond what is typically accepted as statistically significant.

A follow-up experiment of over 200 teachers took the questioning further, and found that teachers were more likely (though by smaller margins) to judge students perceived as black as engaging in a pattern of misbehavior, and were more likely to say they could “imagine themselves suspending the student at some point in the future.”

Okonofua and Eberhart, Association for Psychological Science

“Most school teachers likely work hard at treating their students equally and justly,” says Okonofua. “And yet even amongst these well-intentioned and hard-working people, we find cultural stereotypes about black people are bending their perceptions towards less favorable interpretations of behavior.”

Many studies have looked at the subconscious racial prejudice of snap judgments—my former colleague, Chris Mooney, wrote an excellent feature on the subject last December. But according to the authors, this is the first study to look at the psychology behind the racial gap in school discipline. And, as Okonofua said, “The research shows that even if there’s no race effect for an initial interaction, the stereotyping can play out over time. That’s really important because in the real world, there are sustained relationships.”

And the research may have implications for other kinds of sustained relationships between two levels of authority: say a boss and an employee, a prison guard and a prisoner, or a judge and a repeat offender.

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate