Equity & Diversity Opinion

Racism and the Achievement Gap

By Julian Weissglass — August 08, 2001 11 min read
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Many of the assumptions, values, and practices of people and institutions hinder the learning of students of color.

Most educators, politicians, and educational institutions are concerned over the disparities between different ethnic/racial or socioeconomic groups in national and state test scores, attrition rates, enrollment in advanced courses, and degree attainment. Educators frequently state their commitment that “all” children will learn. One might think that this commitment and the considerable resources of the richest country in the world would result in change. But there has been little progress. A report this year analyzing National Assessment of Educational Progress results for the 1990s, for example, showed that only two states reduced the gap between white students and black or Latino students in 4th grade mathematics, and no state did so in 8th grade math. Although our society has made substantial progress in gaining civil rights for people of color, the achievement gap persists.

I contend that although no one is born prejudiced, many of the assumptions, values, and practices of people and institutions hinder the learning of students of color and students from low-socioeconomic classes. Race and class biases in particular are major causes of differential success. For the sake of brevity, I will only address racial bias.

Racism is the systematic mistreatment of certain groups of people (often referred to as people of color) on the basis of skin color or other physical characteristics. This mistreatment is carried out by societal institutions, or by people who have been conditioned by the society to act, consciously or unconsciously, in harmful ways toward people of color. Racism is different from prejudice. A person of color can hurt a white person because of prejudice. The difference is that in this country, people of color face systematic and ongoing personal and institutionalized biases every day. Shirley Chisholm, our country’s first black congresswoman, wrote that “racism is so universal in this country, so widespread and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.”

Although our society has made substantial progress in gaining civil rights for people of color, the achievement gap persists.

Racism can be subtle or blatant, conscious or unconscious, personal or institutionalized. Unconscious personal bias occurs, for example, when teachers have low expectations of black or Latino students, or don’t interact with them as much or as thoughtfully as they do with white children.

Institutionalized racism includes: (1) the incorporation into institutional policies or practices of attitudes or values that work to the disadvantage of students of color (for example, differential allocation of resources, or tracking practices that consign many students of color to low tracks with less experienced teachers, from which they can seldom escape); (2) the unquestioned acceptance by the institution of white-middle-class values (for example, the scarcity of authors of color in many secondary schools’ English curricula); and (3) schools’ being passive in the face of prejudiced behavior that interferes with students’ learning or well-being (for example, not addressing harassment or teasing, or meeting it with punishment instead of attempting to build communication and understanding).

Since schools are the primary formal societal institutions that young people encounter, they have enormous responsibility in combating all forms of racism. What schools do, or don’t do, has a significant impact on the future of society.

Racism persists in the United States for several reasons, including the following:

  • Lack of information, as well as misinformation. White people lack information about the history and nature of the oppression that people of color have endured. They learn little, for example, about the genocide of indigenous peoples, the kidnapping and slavery of Africans and the oppression of their descendants, the military seizure of the Southwestern U.S. territory from Mexico, or the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The media promote stereotypes and neglect peoples’ real lives. Given the lack of information and the spread of misinformation, it is not surprising that white people do not always understand the feelings of Native Americans, African- Americans, Mexican-Americans, or Asian-Americans.
  • The tenacity of belief systems that advocate superiority and inferiority based on race. Theories of racial superiority and inferiority were common (and publicly stated) in the early part of the 20th century. The Harvard geneticist Edward East, for example, wrote this in his book Heredity and Human Affairs (1929): “Gene packets of African origin are not valuable supplements to the gene packets of European origin; it is the white germ plasm that counts.”

A very prominent group of psychologists, educators, and geneticists from leading American universities believed in the superiority of certain racial, national, and social-class groups and attempted to influence government policies through what was called the eugenics movement. Current standardized tests are based on the theories and models developed by those men.

Unconscious personal bias occurs, for example, when teachers have low expectations of black or Latino students.

Eugenic organizations disappeared after the Nazis took the belief of racial superiority to a horrific conclusion in the early 1940s. But the ideas persist, often in subtler and more sophisticated forms, and affect our society and our schools.

Many people’s expectations and attitudes are still influenced by these discredited racist theories. Let me be clear: The eugenics movement was based on untruths. Human beings are one species. Although there are significant cultural differences, biologically we are much more alike than we are different. Each human being is valuable beyond measure. Each deserves to be treated with complete respect.

  • Lack of opportunities to heal from hurt. Human beings experience considerable hurt (physical and emotional) when they are young—from accidents and from mistreatment or neglect by adults or other young people. Although, as adults, we may have forgotten many of the experiences, they still affect us. People who are “feeling bad” as a result of being hurt sometimes act in ways harmful to others. They may make misguided attempts to feel better by hurting someone else or by bonding with a group (informal or organized) that discriminates against (or even actively harasses) other people. They may exclude or marginalize others, or act in patronizing or condescending ways.

It is obvious to most people that it is hurtful to be the target of racism (or any form of bias). It is less obvious that any oppressive attitude is harmful to the individual who holds it. Oppressive attitudes limit one’s potential, actions, relationships, and emotional health. Humans can heal from hurts that cause racism to persist, but it will take some effort.

  • The internalization and transfer of racism. This is the process in which people of color believe and act on the negative messages they receive about themselves and their group. Internalized racism causes people to give up, become hopeless, or believe that they are not as intelligent or as worthwhile as whites. Internalized racism undermines people’s confidence and, as a result, their ability to function well.

The patterns of internalizing and transferring racism (insults, criticism, slurs, and violence) are rooted in genocide, slavery, subjugation, conquest, and exploitation. When people are hurt and not allowed to heal through emotional release, they are pulled to re- enact the hurt on someone else. Since people of color have rarely been able to act out their hurt on whites, they tend to act it out on family members and other people of color. These behavior patterns tend to get passed on from generation to generation.

The processes of racism and internalized racism help explain why some Asian-American groups outperform blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. Although Asian-Americans experience racism, they do not usually get stereotyped as less intelligent than whites, so they internalize and transfer messages about themselves that are different from those of blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. Teachers who have made progress in closing the achievement gap have undoubtedly, through encouragement, high expectations, building caring relationships, and instilling self-confidence, overcome some the effects of internalized racism.

Good intentions and hard work are not sufficient for eliminating racism in schools. Neither will excellent curriculum and pedagogy in themselves be enough to eradicate the achievement gap. We need communities where it is safe enough for the invisible to be made visible, where whites can listen to people of color talk about how they and their ancestors have experienced racism, and where people of color can listen to whites talk about how they saw racial prejudice in operation and how it affected them. Listening to one another’s stories and emotions helps people identify what needs to change within their institutions, their colleagues, and themselves. Being listened to helps us heal.

Although educators cannot, by themselves, solve all the problems caused by racism in society, it is possible for us to construct “healing communities” in which people can learn how to listen and give attention while others heal. Professional therapists are not necessary, nor are there enough of them to do the job. It is part of our responsibility as educators to do this work.

There is a tendency among educators to dismiss healing from hurt as too “touchy-feely” to belong in academic institutions. Consider, however, that this country has spent hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars in the last two decades on attempts to decrease the achievement gap without any major change on the national level. It is clearly time to risk new approaches— ones based on addressing the root causes of the achievement gap.

Building and sustaining healing communities to end racism is challenging. The issues related to racism and other forms of bias are complex and often emotional. People often deny that racism interferes with relationships or affects institutional policies (“I don’t see color.” “I treat everyone the same.”) They may be fearful of talking honestly about racial issues, or feel hopeless or cynical about the possibility of change. It is easier to have one-day workshops celebrating diversity, to develop new curricula, buy “test prep” programs, write reports, and pressure teachers, than to talk about personal experiences with racism.

If, as a nation,
we develop communities in which people can speak honestly and productively about racism and heal from its hurts, we can change biased practices and attitudes.

But without the ongoing and persistent attention of a healing community to the elimination of racism, it will not go away. Furthermore, any reform effort designed to reduce the achievement gap that does not help whites and people of color heal from the hurts of racism will not be likely to succeed over time.

Achieving healing communities will require leaders with exceptional commitment, understanding, persistence, and sensitivity. These leaders will need to understand not only educational issues and subject disciplines, but also the personal, social, and institutional roots of inequities. Leaders will be able to raise controversial issues while building unity, to relate well with people from diverse backgrounds, and help people deal constructively with their and others’ emotions. A substantial effort will be required to develop these leaders, since the necessary skills and knowledge are not routinely developed by colleges of education or in professional development. But it can be done.

In healing communities, a wide range of anti-racism work will be going on. Educators will be identifying how their unaware bias affects their students, challenging any attitudes of low expectations, working with parents to help them support their children’s learning, and identifying how racism becomes institutionalized in policies and practices. They will be questioning their curricula and pedagogy and working to make them more engaging to students of different cultures.

Schools will teach the history of how oppressed peoples have been treated in this country and support students of color and their families to challenge and heal from internalized racism. Schools will move beyond the celebration of diversity and create communities in which it is possible for students to talk about and heal from how they experience unfairness and discrimination. A healing community will have as its highest priority adults’ caring about students and their learning.

If, as a nation, we develop communities in which people can speak honestly and productively about racism and heal from its hurts, we can change biased practices and attitudes. If we can communicate love and caring to all our students and help them recover from racism and internalized racism, they will be much more likely to achieve their full academic potential. If we do all this, we will accomplish more than reducing the achievement gap. We will create a better society.

Julian Weissglass is the director of the National Coalition for Equity in Education and a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He will be a nongovernmental delegate at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism this month in South Africa, and can be reached at weissglass@education.ucsb.edu.

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Racism and the Achievement Gap


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