Teachers interpret their students’ misbehavior differently depending on the student’s race, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, which found that black children are more likely to be labeled as “troublemakers” and given fewer second chances than their white peers.
Racial disparities in school discipline are well documented throughout the country. A 2014 report by the Department of Education found that black students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, starting as early as preschool. Black students also face a higher risk of being referred to law enforcement for school-related disciplinary issues, giving rise to the problematic school-to-prison pipeline.
“The fact that black children are disproportionately disciplined in school is beyond dispute,” said Stanford psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt. “What is less clear is why.”
Hoping to better understand these disparate outcomes, Dr. Eberhardt and Stanford psychology graduate student Jason Okonofua examined the psychological processes involved when teachers discipline black students more harshly than white students.
The researchers conducted two studies in which real-world primary and secondary school teachers were presented with school records describing two instances of misbehavior by a student. In one study, after reading about each infraction, the teachers were asked about their perception of its severity, about how irritated they would feel by the student’s misbehavior, about how severely the student should be punished, and about whether they viewed the student as a troublemaker.
A second study followed the same protocol and asked teachers whether they thought the misbehavior was part of a pattern and whether they could imagine themselves suspending the student in the future.
The researchers randomly assigned names to the files, suggesting in some cases that the student was black (with a name such as DeShawn or Darnell) and in other cases that the student was white (with a name such as Greg or Jake).
Across both studies, the researchers found that racial stereotypes shaped teachers’ responses not after the first infraction but rather after the second. Teachers felt more troubled by a second infraction they believed was committed by a black student rather than by a white student.
In fact, the stereotype of black students as “troublemakers” led teachers to want to discipline black students more harshly than white students after two infractions, the researchers found. When they thought they were dealing with a black student, teachers were more likely to see the misbehavior as part of a pattern, and to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future.
“We see that stereotypes not only can be used to allow people to interpret a specific behavior in isolation, but also stereotypes can heighten our sensitivity to behavioral patterns across time. This pattern sensitivity is especially relevant in the schooling context,” Dr. Eberhardt said.
Implicit Bias: Beyond the Schoolyard
Importantly, these results have implications beyond the school setting as well.
As Okonofua explained, “Most social relationships entail repeated encounters. 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.”
This is particularly relevant in light of the ongoing public outcry over policing tactics that disproportionately target men of color and ultimately result in tragedies like the recent killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot multiple times in the back by a white police officer, and the deaths of other unarmed black men at the hands of police: Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Tamir Rice, LeVar Jones, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, just to name a few.
Extensive research shows that African Americans are perceived as more threatening than their white counterparts — which extends to policing. Officers who were bluntly asked “Who looks criminal?” for a study chose more black faces than white. When primed with information about a crime, they pictured a “black face that was even more strongly representative of the black racial category than the Black face to which they were actually exposed.” And as the new study demonstrates, children are not exempt from this bias. In fact, previous research shows that black boys are perceived as older and guiltier than white boys.
These perceptions — a type of implicit racial bias — contribute to a skewed justice system, from arrest rates to sentencing patterns to split-second decisions about using lethal force. Now, we have evidence demonstrating that they also play a role in the well documented pattern of racially disparate outcomes in school punishment — and the broader injustices it creates.