Archive for July, 2011
On Tuesday, July 26, Pew Research Center published a report entitled “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.” In the study, calculating wealth as the accumulated sum of assets minus the sum of debt, the authors report
The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. . . . These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago.
Pew attributes their finding to the fact that “Minority households largely depend on home equity as a source of wealth” and “the housing market has yet to recover” from the housing bust which began in 2007. However, this explanation fails to explain the magnitude of racial wealth disparities. To adequately analyze the racial wealth gap, one must explore America’s history of unjustly enriching whites.
America’s history has been one of unjustly enriching whites and impoverishing people of color. Sociologist Joe Feagin (2006; 2010) defines unjust enrichment and impoverishment as “the unjust theft of labor or resources by one group, such as white Americans, from another group, such as black Americans.” According to Feagin (2010):
For over fourteen generations the exploitation of African Americans has redistributed income and wealth earned by them to generations of white Americans, leaving the former relatively impoverished as a group and the latter relatively privileged and affluent as a group.
This story of exploitation by whites has long been the story of American economics. In his discussion of black exploitation and the American centuries old “racial classes,” Oliver Cox (1948) argues, whites decided “to proletarianize a whole people.” In doing so, whites established a socioeconomic system centered on syphoning the labor and resources from melaninated bodies and placing it into white America. Supporting this claim, in his analysis of the development of the American economic system, Feagin argues (2010):
It is unlikely that the American colonies and, later, the United States would have seen dramatic agricultural and industrial development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries without the blood and sweat of those enslaved…Without slave labor it seems likely there would have been no successful textile industry, and without the cotton textile industry–the first major U.S. industry–it is unclear how or when the United States would have become a major industrial power.
Here one sees just how integral the theft of labor was for American economics. Whites needed to prey on minorities to create a nation in which amassing great wealth was possible. Without stealing the labor and resources of people of color, it is very unlikely America would have ever prospered. However, continuously reinvesting the wealth accumulated on the backs of the enslaved in new economic and industrial ventures created the prosperity enjoyed in the modern United States–particularly by white Americans. The wealth that was not reinvested, was often passed down familial lines in the form of inheritance which many white Americans benefit from today. Using the concepts of unjust enrichment and impoverishment, one gains more insight into Pew’s data on the racial wealth gap.
Reviewing the new data on the racial wealth gap, one sees just how unequal wealth is distributed across races in America. While the housing bust of the last 4 years is a clear factor in the amount of wealth accumulated by Americas, it is not that minorities have most of their wealth in home equity that causes the racial wealth gap. The key is that whites do not and why. As Pew reports, “A higher share of whites than blacks or Hispanics own stocks–as well as mutual funds and 401(k) or individuals retirement accounts (IRAs).”
The ability to acquire such means of wealth dates back to the founding of America. From first contact with people of color, whites have established a system of stealing resources and labor from the racialized “other” and placing it in white America. Due to centuries of this practice, whites have been able to accumulate great sources of wealth outside of home equity. Furthermore, whites have often monopolized certain sources of wealth and more importantly sentenced minorities to generations of impoverishment. The neglect of America’s history of unjust enrichment and impoverishment is a major hole in Pew’s report. Without contextualizing wealth in America, Pew is only telling half of the story. The practice of stealing resources and labor from people of color and placing into white America is central to why whites have been able to amass such wealth and must be considered if one is to honestly discuss the racial wealth gap.
Cox, Oliver C. 1948. Caste, class, & race; a study in social dynamics. Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic racism: a theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.
Feagin, Joe R. 2010. Racist America: roots, current realities, and future reparations. New York: Routledge.
Anyone studying issues of race, ethnicity and incarceration knows that African American men, all things being equal, receive longer sentences for similarly situated crimes than White men (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005). This is especially true in crimes of violence when the victims are White (Radelet and Pierce 2010). So it does not come as a surprise that a recent social science paper which identifies data that there are additional negative consequences for Blacks, separate from Whites, in the criminal justice system based on their skin color, has been receiving positive endorsements.
The paper entitled “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders: a research note” appearing in The Social Science Journal, 48 (2011) 250–258 by Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon and Robert DeFina in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Villanova University has been praised in NewsOne, The Root, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Sentencing Project Race & Justice News and most positive of all in thisonline blog: Racism Review.
Actually, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders” is an important paper in that it could have shown how the disparities in the US criminal justice system continues –based on the invidious distinction of skin color—and moved us beyond seeing things simply as “black and white,” had it not been for faulty science and methodology used in the research itself. For starters the researchers take at face value the coding system employed at the North Carolina prisons; coding light skinned African American women as “1”, and dark skinned African American women as “0.” Any empirical social scientist knows that extensive training of “coders” and reliability analysis must be performed before measures such as these are considered to be reliable. I see no evidence that either of these important aspects of data collection have been performed. Additionally, there is certainly widespread discussion of the complexities of color in the African American community—both discussions of it as a fact and of its impact on issues such as the restricted complexions represented in the media, in certain places of employment and so forth. Yet, most research on complexion also acknowledges that complexion occurs on a continuum. To represent it as “light” and “dark” based on a binary coding system is reductionist to the point of rendering the data potentially irrelevant.
There are, to be sure, major methodological and conceptual problems in the research that should have been addressed prior to praising the paper. For example, in the research by Thompson and Zingraff (1981), they point out that
sentence length is a product of status differentials between the offender and the victim Given: 100 white robbery offenders and 100 black robbery offenders sentenced in 1973 and matched on prior record and total number of charges intra-racial incidence of robbery in 1973: 93% of black offender robberies and 52% of white offender robberies sentence lengths (a) black offender/white victims 20 years; (b) white offender/white victim 16 years; (c) black offender/black victim 10 years; (d) white offender/black victim, 5 years. The average sentence lengths are computed as follows:
black offenders (93 X 10) + (7 X 20)/100= 10.7 years ;
white offenders (52X16)+ (48X5)/100=10.7years
The example shows that even when 100% of the judges discriminate, researchers who do not account for victim characteristics may conclude that no discrimination exists. Recent research shows similar patterns in sentencing still exist today (Tonry 2011).
In addition to the severe methodological problems plaguing this paper “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders,” in order to demonstrate this type of wide-spread discrimination based on color, rather than race, would require the authors to demonstrate collusion of benefit afforded to light skinned African Americans by arresting police officers, prosecutors, district attorneys and judges (juries) relative to darker skinned African Americans separate from the demonstrated discrimination based on race (White versus Black). The question becomes: why would this be in light of disparities in sentencing (White v. Black) that have been in existence since the formal establishment of the convict leasing system (Oshinsky 1997).
Lastly, the praise for this paper focuses almost exclusively on its ability to demonstrate the persistence of color bias inside the African American community, yet there is no evidence that the “coders” of the data are in fact African American! It is unfortunate that this paper suffers from fatal methodological flaws, as the topic, as stated above, would allow us to explore the nuances of race and the criminal justice system beyond “black and white.” It is also unfortunate that so many who praised the paper mistake it for a contribution to the “colorism” research and debates that have been a positive factor in disentangling the intra race/ethnic discrimination in the African American community that has been around ever since– If you’re black, get back. If you’re brown, stick around If you’re light, you’re alright (Hochschild and Weaver 2007; Keith and Herring 1991), also see the film by Spike Lee entitled: School Daze.
It is even more unfortunate that so many noted scholars were so quick to praise the paper and circulate it to a wider readership without engaging in the critical assessment of the methodsthat reveals flaws that lead this reader at least to conclude that the findings are irrelevant and can’t be substantiated unless more rigorous methods and reliability analysis are applied and performed.
Hochschild, Jennifer and V. Weaver. 2007. “The skin color paradox and the American racial order.” Social Forces 86:643-670.
Keith, Vera and Cedric Herring. 1991. “Skin tone stratification in the black community.” The American Journal of Sociology 97:760-778.
Oshinsky, David M. 1997. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press.
Radelet, Michael L. and Glenn L. Pierce. 2010. “Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina -1980-2007.” Manuscript, Colorado Springs.
Thomson, Randall and Matthew T. Zingraff. 1981. “Detecting Sentencing Disparity: Some Problems and Evidence ” American Journal of Sociology 86:869-880.
Tonry, Michael. 2011. Punishing Race. New York: OXford.
Uggen, Christopher, Sara Wakefield, and Bruce Western. 2005. “Work and Family Perspectives on Reentry ” Pp. 209-243 in Prisoner Reentry and Crime in America, edited by J. Travis and C. Visher. New York: Cambridge.
Dr. Earl Smith is professor of sociology at Wakeforest University.
The terrible news, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, is that there were two terrorist attacks in Norway – one at the capital of Oslo and another, more deadly attack, just outside the city at a camp for children. Reports are that the death toll is around 90 people killed, many of them children, and scores were seriously wounded. All those numbers may yet rise. The shooter is alive and in custody. He has been identified as a 32-year-old Norwegian farmer, Anders Behring Breivik (picture below via MSNBC from his Facebook page). Racism seems to be implicated in this story in two, very telling, ways: Breivik’s views and the initial news reports about the terror strikes.
Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Muslim Views. According to Norwegian journalist Liss Goril Anda, writing for the BBC, Breivik had posted “racist, extremist right-wing comments along with fellow anti-Muslims” on right-wing websties. On his Facebook profile, he identified his political views as “Christian, conservative.” However, Breivik didn’t belong to any known factions in Norway’s small and splintered extreme right movement. Goril Anda writes that the Breivik’s online postings represent, “with varying degrees of extremism, a section of the Norwegian population which feels that the country’s immigration policies are too lax.” Goril Anda goes on to speculate, “Norway might now be forced to deal head-on with this undercurrent of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments.” The Mail refers to him as “an extremist who hated Muslims.”
According to another report, Breivik was recently posting online that politics today was not about socialism vs. capitalism but nationalism vs. internationalism. He argued on a Swedish news website that the media were not critical enough about Islam and claimed that Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands was the only “true” party of conservatives. (Wilders said in a statement, “I despise everything he stands for and everything he did.”)
Breivik recommended other sites associated with the so-called counter-jihad movement, notably Jihad Watch, Gates of Vienna and the Brussels Journal. In December 2009 he wrote that he was working full time to promote the ideas of Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Bat Ye’or.
He also wrote of his contacts with the English Defence League (EDL) and Stop Islamisation of Europe and claimed to have given them advice on strategy. He attached importance to building “a Norwegian version” of the EDL to fight against anti-fascists and anti-racists.
Updated Sunday, 8:26amET: And, of course, the racism in his selection of victims: “Many of the victims in Friday’s shooting were the children of immigrants from Africa and Asia…” according to New York Times (via @Alondra).
Shameful Journalism. Shiva Balaghi writing at Jadaliyya has an excellent piece detailing all the major news outlets that first reported this story as a case of “Muslim terrorists” and/or “jihadi groups,” supposedly “angered at the war in Afghanistan,” including: the New York Times, The Financial Times, and PBS. Perhaps most revealing is her account of Judy Woodruff on PBS’ Newshour, Balaghi writes:
Judy Woodruff’s interview with a Norwegian journalist that aired on PBS’s Newshour followed a similar scenario. We did learn that “a thirty-two-year old white Norwegian guy [sic]” had been arrested for presumably having carried out the bombings and the shootings. But no information was provided on the attacker’s motivations or political affiliation; Woodruff simply did not ask those questions. Who forms the neo-Nazi movement in Norway? [emphasis added]
Benjamin Doherty writing at The Electric Intifada has this more detailed account of how a supposed “expert” on terrorism set media speculation on Muslims following the attacks:
“Experts” who supposedly study this topic — almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds — direct suspicion toward Muslims by pointing to claims of responsibility on “jihadi” web sites that only they have access to. Notorious attacks invariably inspire false claims of responsibility, or false reports of claims of responsibility, but this apparently doesn’t discourage the media and experts from giving them undue attention.
From the “experts” to The New York Times to the world…
The New York Times originally reported:
A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.
In later editions, the story was revised to read:
Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.
The source was Will McCants, adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, and Doherty does an effective job in tracking down McCants’ sketchy sources on this story. Even after McCants posted that his information was flawed (and the claim for responsibility had been retracted), major news outlets like the BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post were still promoting information originally sourced from him.
The news spread quickly and amplified the association in many people’s mind between “terrorism” and “Muslim.” The problem, of course, is that it wasn’t true, even as these mainstream news outlets kept reporting that it was.
White-Blindness & Terrorism. Taken together, these paint a broader picture of the ways we do not see race when it is white, and the ways we do not acknowledge racism in our thinking about terrorism and the ill-conceived “war on terror.” In a way, we have white-blindess, like snow blindness, when it comes to terrorism. A white, Christian, conservative, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant terrorist takes up arms and the mainstream media is caught short trying to report on the story because of their own white-blindness, their inability to see, indeed even imagine, whiteness as a race. It’s likely now that these same news outlets will start referring to him as a “lone wolf,” increasingly a phrase that is used only to describe white terrorists. The “lone wolf” designation further distances Breivik’s politics from his actions. The rhetoric of “terrorism” and “the war on terrorism” is language that is steeped in connotations of a dangerous, Dark Other, despite the evidence to the contrary. Like the attack by Timothy McVeigh on Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Norway attacks demonstrate that white men can be terrorists. It’s only white-blindness that keeps us from seeing that.
Let me begin this blog with a disclaimer. I have recently returned from over a month on reservations in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Arizona. In the 30 years I have been making these trips, the situation has not improved. The Pineridge reservation continues to be the poorest county in America. According to the CDC suicides have increased, untreated health conditions such as diabetes continue to rise in numbers, infant mortality remains high. As a paralegal, one of the things I do while there is help people understand and move forward with legal issues and problems. Criminal justice is more criminal than justice as NPR discovered when investigating rape reports and convictions. In 2007, Native women had the highest rate of rape of any ethnic group, 2.5 times higher than the national average. This prompted Amnesty International to investigate and report on justice in Indian country. Their report firmly lays the blame on the justice system and the courts for this problem.
This situation was very present for me as I read the article in The Atlantic about the virtual nonexistence of Native American judges in the United States. The author takes issue with the Senate patting itself on the back for finally confirming an openly gay judge while having confirmed only one openly Indian judge in the history of this country. In 224 years, only one.
As it happens, a Native American judicial nominee is currently waiting on confirmation. Arvo Mikkanen was nominated 6 months ago. He received unanimously qualified ratings from the American Bar Association. His nomination was pronounced “dead” by the white Senator from Oklahoma. Apparently, the White House did not consult them before nominating him. This breach of professional etiquette is the theoretical reason for his nomination being stalled without hearings or consideration. Mikkanen makes his own case persuasively. He questions the reasoning of the senators and also of the White House which placed him in this position and has failed to speak on his behalf.
As a lawyer and a nominee, he is circumspect in his questioning. As a Native American and a race scholar, I intend to be more critical. Oklahoma is the end of the Trail of Tears. It has the second largest native population (after Alaska) of any state in the country. White Oklahoma elected officials have a long history of expressing that being Indian is reason enough to conclude incompetence. Not one of the elected officials in Oklahoma has spoken in defense of Mikkanen or elaborated on what makes him unfit.
Additionally, the White House has remained silent. I would suggest as Cohen hints that Mikkanen is a symbolic gesture and a pawn in the White House game to pretend to support Native justice while using Republicans as the foil to keep from actually delivering on that justice. To wit, the Cobell settlement for pennies on the dollar languished for almost 2 years before being approved after having spent 15 years in the federal courts. The Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian lands and resources has yet to promulgate new standards for leases, trust management or native protections. While signing the Native American Law Enforcement Act, Obama said,
government’s relationship with tribal governments, its obligations under treaty and law, and our values as a nation require that we do more to improve public safety in tribal communities.
The act itself only increases a possible sentence, for any crime in Indian Country including murder, from 1 year to 3 years. However, it does, finally, allow Indian courts to question and investigate crimes by white people on reservations. Not necessarily prosecute them or charge them or sentence them commensurately, but at least investigate them.
This is justice in Indian Country. This is the improvement the President touts. Meanwhile, there are no Indian judges off the reservation. This should not surprise us particularly, there have only been two Indian U.S. Senator in our history and 3 congressmen. No states have ever elected a Native American as governor.
An Indian, from India, in Louisiana, but no Native American. Arvo Mikkanek joins a long list of Native Americans whose qualifications for public service could not overcome their inherent disqualification of being Indian. Members of both parties will continue to make great public statements and act as if justice, health and representation for Native Americans are a priority. They will also continue to fail to enact any policy of inclusion or solution to the problems in Indian Country. Until one Senator or one White House official rises to defend the defamation of Mikkanen’s character, we can assume it is business as usual. White people take what they want, offer trinkets and solemn never kept promises while pursuing an uninterrupted program of annihilation of Native Americans through any means necessary.
You’ve probably seen the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We Live With,” which shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day of school as she walks through the doors to desegregate a New Orleans elementary school. Today, Ruby Bridges is all grown up and the painting is on loan to the Obama White House. Recently, Ms. Bridges had a chance to reflect on her experience as she visited the painting, and President Obama, at the White House:
RR welcomes new contributing blogger, Randy Hohle, Assistant Professor, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY
Neoliberalism is the political and economic framework based on privatizing public works, removing rules and regulations over businesses that protect citizens, and tax cuts for the wealthy. You might wonder why anyone outside of the wealthiest 1% would support such policies. Here’s my theory: neoliberalism was made possible by a racialized language of privatization that defined all things private as “white” and all things public as “black.” This language was first articulated in the post-war South as whites were responding to the black civil rights movement and the modernization of the southern economy. I’ll use post-war Alabama to make my case.
In Alabama, the white response to the Brown v. Board of Ed ruling was to privatize the public school system in favor of letting private and non-profit entities run the schools on a racially segregated basis.
The predominantly white Alabama business community felt that subsidizing businesses to relocate to the South was a bad idea because businesses didn’t stay and states were losing revenue. They pushed for tax breaks on businesses and opposed additional taxes based on the idea that taxes are bad for business, thus, bad for the economy.
In contrast to the ardent segregationists, the white business community negotiated with the civil rights movement to offer blacks employment in the low-pay, low-skill service sector. Yet, this was no act of racial sympathy. The white southern business community sought to integrate blacks in this limited way in order to enhance the idea that the ‘new south’ was more racially tolerant and, thus, a safe place for northern and federal investment.
Whites in Alabama used both privatization and tax cuts to direct all public resources to the most privileged segments of the white community. The language of ‘privatization and tax cuts’ became synonymous with ‘white, superior and preferred’ while ‘public’ implied ‘black, inferior, and inefficient.’ By the mid-1960s, this racial coding of a political ideology formed the pretext of what it meant to be white in America, and thus, made the larger neoliberal turn that started in 1979 possible.
The realities of the white/private, black/public code continue to be found in all major policy debates. And for the most part, the neoliberal crowd has been winning. The rationale for charter schools and educational credits are the grandchildren of the original school privatization bills. The movement against national health care used terminology like ‘the public option’ and ‘Medicaid for all’ to explicitly link national health care with black/public.
The reality is that white resentment towards blacks has made neoliberalism possible despite 30 years of failed policy and to the detriment of whites and blacks.
Suggested further reading:
Cobb, James C. 1999. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press.
Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. NY & London: Routledge.
Hohle, Randolph. Forthcoming 2012, “The Color of Neoliberalism: The ‘Modern Southern Businessman’ and Post-War” Alabama’s Challenge to Racial Desegregation Sociological Forum.
Hohle, Randolph. 2009. “The Rise of the New South Governmentality: Competing Southern Revitalization Projects and Police Responses to the Black Civil Rights Movement 1961-1965”. Journal of Historical Sociology 22(4): 497-527.
Kruse, Kevin Michael. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1975. Powershift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenges to the Eastern Establishment. New York: Random House.
Our prevailing mythology of meritocracy in the U.S. tells us that education is a path to achievement. To do provide that, we expect schools to be free from racism and provide an equal education to all. Yet, there’s a significant amount of research that tells a different story. The story the research tells is that students of color at all levels of education face “micro,” or individual level, racism on a regular basis. Here, I’m going to take up just two of the myriad forms of individual-level racism documented in the literature: 1) microaggressions and 2) stereotype threat.
Microaggressions. The term “microaggression” was originally coined by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s to describe a form of individual-level racism. Microaggressions are “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” In Feagin and Sikes’ book, Living with Racism (1995) middle-class black respondents describe “the racial stare” they experience from whites when entering white-dominated areas. I think of this as the quintessential microaggression. It’s so small, it’s hard to call out, yet the message is clear: “you’re not welcome here.”
Microaggressions are not a thing of the past, unfortunately, but are oh so current. There’s an interesting social media (Twitter/Tumblr) effort to document and recognize the pervasiveness of microaggressions across multiple forms of oppression.
What does microaggression in education look like? Here’s a very recent submission to microaggressions that gives you a sense of what this looks like in education:
On Friday morning, as I walked to the cafe between classes at my predominantly white university, the school appointed photographer offered me a free coffee if I agreed to play the role of the cheerful token black woman in a group of strangers, as though the university is not festering with racial tension. May 2011, at a “liberal” university. Made me feel devalued and furious.
Historically white institutions (HWIs) such as the one described above can be especially difficult, hostile places for students of color. Morgane Richardson, a 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, has launched an effort to Refuse the Silence about what elite liberal arts colleges are like for women of color. In an interview with Ileana Jiménez, Richardson explains some of what she experienced in college that led her to become an activist:
“there were a series of events that led me to become a campus activist and a mentor to other women of color at Middlebury. During my first few weeks there, a few students from the Ultimate Frisbee team decided to throw a “Cowboys and Injuns” party. They sent out invitations over the phone to individuals saying, “if you come as an Injun, be prepared to drink fire water and sit in a corner, etc.” I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that my fellow classmates would put this event together, or that the campus allowed it. In the organizers’ defense, they did recognize their mistake and agreed to sit down with us and talk about the significance of their theme party.
About a month later, I came home to a swastika drawn on my door. My only friend on the floor, a man of color, had the word ‘Nigger’ written on his. When I brought it up, the college organized a discussion for students of color, but it was never addressed in a large forum.”
Young men of color also endure microaggressions in educational institutions. In a recent study (2011) researchers at the University of Utah analyzed data from 661 black men about their experiences in college. Smith, Hung and Franklin found that experiences of racial microaggressions interact with increasing levels of education to heighten stress (Smith, Hung and Franklin, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the MisEducation of Black Men: Racial Microaggressions, Societal Problems, and Environmental Stress,” Journal of Negro Education (80)1, 63-82). Another and related form of individual-level racism in education is stereotype threat.
Stereotype Threat. The term “stereotype threat” was developed by Steele and Aronson (1995) . Their research, mostly through a series of experiments with college students, found that when race was emphasized in pre-test instructions, black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. However, when race was not emphasized, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. Steele and Aronson’s research provide powerful evidence that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. They speculate that the mechanisms behind stereotype threat for students include distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over effort might all be dynamics at play. Still, there remain some critiques of the research on stereotype threat (e.g., over reliance on college student samples, the distinction between “threat” and real discrimination) as well as some unresolved issues (e.g., mostly to do with measurement and operatlonalization of the term).
What’s interesting here is that researchers Steele and Aronson have launched a new site devoted to helping educators reduce stereotype threat. Just as performance on tasks can be hindered by stereotype, there are ways to reduce the threat. Stereotype threat based on gender, for example, can be reduced either by ensuring women students that a test is gender-fair (e.g., Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999). It’s also been suggested that explicitly “nullifying the assumed diagnosticity of the test,” in other words, telling students that a given test “doesn’t show test innate ability” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Overall, the evidence seems to suggest that simply addressing the racial fairness of a test can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation.
Meritocracy Myth. We want to believe that education is a mechanism for leveling the playing field for all children. The whole idea of the U.S. as an “open” society relies on an educational system that prepares all students to succeed with adequate skills. Yet, while education is marred by racism – whether institutional or individual level – the notion of meritocracy is a myth.
The documentary “Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story,” (2008), directed by Bill Kavanagh, highlights a struggle around race and education in Yonkers, New York. The film tells the story of federal US v. Yonkers, a less widely known story of integration than the storied Brown v. Board of Education case. The case challenged neighborhood and educational discrimination in important ways. This short clip (2:17) give you a sense of the film:
You can find more information about the film here.
Racism starts early in education and it pervades K-12 public schools in the U.S. Not surprisingly, this has a negative impact on children’s educational success. While some people think that racism in U.S. schools ended nearly 60 years ago with Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which held that “separate” schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, there’s a large body of research that demonstrates that racism persists in K-12 schools. The primary mechanisms of racism in public grade schools are institutional and interpersonal. Below, I’m taking up the issue of institutional racism in K-12 education.
Institutional Racism. The clever, sinister thing about institutional racism in education is that it operates relentlessly on its own, like a machine, even when people of good will want it to operate differently. Today, it has morphed from the old forms we’re used to seeing in civil rights documentaries and taken on many new forms that are no less pernicious. These are just a few of those new forms.
“No Child Left Behind” (NCLB): The Racism Built into High-Stakes Testing. When President Geo. W. Bush signed the legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) into law, supporter said that would improve the educational system by building in “accountability” through mandatory testing, especially for low-income students and students of color. The research suggests otherwise.
Walter Haney and his colleagues have demonstrated that high-stakes testing increases the number of dropouts. Since the early 1990s, when high-stakes testing started to become commonplace, graduation rates have steadily fallen (Haney, W., Madaus, G., Abrams, L., Wheelock, A., Miao, J., & Gruia, I., “The education pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000.” Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College, 2004).
In 1990-91, graduation rates were 77%; ten years later, in 2000-01, they had fallen to 67%. Needless to say, in our increasingly credentialed society those without the basic credential of a high school diploma are at a severe disadvantage in the job market. For some, not finishing high school the first step along a pathway to the carceral system, what some have called the “school to prison pipeline.”
Haney and his colleagues also found that three times as many students “disappear” between grades nine and ten as they did 30 years ago, due to retention policies. A study by Sharon Nichols and colleagues takes this a step further. She demonstrates that the more pressure a state exerts on accountability, the less likely it is that students will progress to 12th grade (Nichols, S.L., Glass, G.V., & Berliner, D.C. “High-stakes testing and student achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act”. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Research Unit, 2005).
A disproportionate number of students leaving school are African-American, Latina/o and Native American. Gary Orfield and colleagues’ analysis finds that only around 50% of the nation’s black, Native American, and Latina students graduate, and for males the numbers are even lower (Orfield, et al., 2004, “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis” Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Contributors: Advocates for Children of New York, The Civil Society Institute).
Orfield makes a convincing case that NCLB give states an incentive to push out disproportionately African American, Latina/o and Native American students in order to increase average test scores for schools. For example, Steve Orel in Birmingham, Alabama, was fired for reporting that the Birmingham schools had “administratively withdrawn” 522 students in an effort to boost overall test scores. The students were overwhelmingly African-American. None of them dropped out of school voluntarily.
Tracking. One result of high-stakes testing is to “track” (or, group) students into “ability groups.” In other words, once a student does poorly on a high-stakes, standardized test, those test scores are then used to determine which groups they’ll be placed in for future classes. Tracking students into lower-level classes inevitably influences teacher expectations about those students, which in turn, affects how students perform. Many researchers have documented the over-representation of African-Americans and Latinas/os in lower-level classes, such as special education, and their under-representation in the higher-level classes, such as those which are college prep courses.
A growing number of scholars are pointing to the relevance of white privilege and racism for understanding, and dismantling, the tracking system. (Blanchett, Wanda J. “Disproportionate Representation of African American Students in Special Education:Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism,” Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 24–28, 2006; Solomon, R. P., et al., “The discourse of denial: how white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege,’” [pdf] Race, Ethnicity and Education, Vol.8, No. 2, July 2005, 147-169).
Underfunding Majority Black and Brown Schools. One of the key forms of racism in K-12 schools has to do with the funding scheme for education in the U.S. In most areas of the country, public schools are funded through property taxes. What that means is that in richer neighborhoods, where property values – and taxes – are higher, the schools in that area get more resources. It sets up a self-perpetuating cycle where those with means move into wealthier areas to escape the bad schools in the poorer neighborhoods. In cities like New York and Chicago, it means that when people have children, lots and lots of them move out of the cities – and the poorly funded public school system – to wealthier suburban neighborhoods so that they can send their kids to better public schools in the suburbs. This sort of pattern doesn’t map precisely onto race – some whites stay behind and send their kids to underfunded, urban schools; and, an increasing number of African American and Latino families find a way out to the suburbs. But the overall pattern of educational funding in the U.S. is driven by white flight to predominantly whiter-and-whiter suburbs, so that those parents can send their kids to better (and whiter) schools.
The net result of this pattern is that we have a de facto racially segregated K-12 school system that is more segregated today than it was forty years ago. And, this racial segregation is a strongly implicated in the low educational outcomes for African American, Latina/o and Native American students.
What That Looks Like. So, what does it look like when a school is “under resourced” ? Here’s a glimpse from one school in California:
- Students cannot take textbooks home for homework in any core subject because their teachers have enough textbooks for use in class only. For example, a social studies teacher who teaches five separate social studies classes during one day has only one class set of social studies textbooks, so all five classes must share the same set of books.
- The school is infested with vermin and roaches and students routinely see mice in their classrooms. One dead rodent has remained, decomposing, in a corner in the gymnasium since the beginning of the school year.
- The school library is rarely open, has no librarian, and has not recently been updated. The latest version of the encyclopedia in the library was published in approximately 1988.
- Classrooms do not have computers. Computer instruction and research skills are not, therefore, part of Luther Burbank students’ regular instruction in their core courses.
- The school no longer offers any art classes for budgetary reasons. Without the art instruction, children have limited opportunities to learn space, volume, and linear logic concepts.
- Two of the three bathrooms at the school are locked all day, every day. The third bathroom is locked during lunch and other periods during the school day, so there are times during school when no bathroom at all is available for students to use. Students have urinated or defecated on themselves at school because they could not get into an unlocked bathroom. Other students have left school altogether to go home to use the restroom. When the bathrooms are not locked, they often lack toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, and the toilets frequently are clogged and overflowing.
- Paint peels off walls in many classrooms and there is graffiti on classroom and other school walls. Ceiling tiles are missing and cracked in the school gym, and school children are afraid to play basketball and other games in the gym because they worry that more ceiling tiles will fall on them during their games.
- The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s. The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.
- Eleven of the 35 teachers at the school have not yet obtained full, non-emergency teaching credentials, and 17 of the 35 teachers only began teaching in the last year.
Legal Remedies. Just as in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, today lawyers committed to civil rights and social justice are doing good work to stop this kind of institutional racism. One of the most noteworthy cases in recent years is The Williams Case in California (the examples listed above are based on this case). In 2000, nearly 100 plaintiffs filed as a class action lawsuit in Eliezer Williams, et al., vs. State of California, et al. (Williams) in San Francisco County Superior Court. The plaintiffs were San Francisco County students, who sued the State of California and state education agencies, including the California Department of Education (CDE), claiming that the agencies failed to provide then – and all K-12 public school students - with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers. The case was settled in 2004. The result was that the state of California allocated $138 million in additional funding in order to bring these schools up to the standards of their wealthier (and whiter) counter parts.
There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that solutions are possible. The bad news is that these are hard to achieve and can take years to realize. Further good news is that there’s plenty of work to be done on this issue for enterprising social activists that want to make real change happen. For aspiring young scholars and activists, I can’t think of a more important area than tackling the persistent institutional racism that plagues our K-12 educational system.
Tomorrow, I’ll continue the series with more about the interpersonal (micro-level” as we sociologists like to say) racism in K-12 education.