How Racism Affects Children of Color in Public Schools

School Classroom, Taiwan

manginwu / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Institutional racism doesn’t just affect adults but children in K-12 schools as well. Anecdotes from families, research studies, and discrimination lawsuits all reveal that children of color face bias in schools. They’re disciplined more harshly, less likely to be identified as gifted, or to have access to quality teachers, to name but a few examples.

Racism in schools has serious consequences—from fueling the school-to-prison pipeline to traumatizing children of color.

Racial Disparities in School Suspensions

Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And in the American South, racial disparities in punitive discipline are even greater. A 2015 report from the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education found that 13 Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia) were responsible for 55% of the 1.2 million suspensions involving Black students nationwide.

These states also accounted for 50% of expulsions involving Black students nationally, according to the report, titled “Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in southern States.” The finding most indicative of racial bias is that in 84 Southern school districts, 100% of students suspended were Black.

Disproportionate Rates of Discipline in Preschool

And grade school students aren’t the only Black children facing harsh forms of school discipline. Even Black preschool students are more likely to be suspended than students of other races. The same report showed that while Black students make up just 18% of children in preschool, they represent nearly half of preschool children suspended.

“I think most people would be shocked that those numbers would be true in preschool because we think of 4- and 5-year-olds as being innocent,” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the think tank Advancement Project told CBS News about the finding. “But we do know that schools are using zero-tolerance policies for our youngest also, that while we think our children need a head start, schools are kicking them out instead.”

Preschool children sometimes engage in troublesome behavior such as kicking, hitting, and biting, but quality preschools have behavior intervention plans in place to counter these forms of acting out. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that only Black children act out in preschool, a stage in life in which kids are notorious for having temper tantrums.

Given how Black preschoolers are disproportionately targeted for suspensions, it’s very likely that race plays a role in which children teachers single out for punitive discipline. In fact, a 2016 study published in Psychological Science showed that White people begin to perceive Black boys as threatening at just 5 years old, associating them with adjectives such as “violent,” “dangerous,” “hostile,” and “aggressive.”

Consequences of Suspensions

The negative racial biases Black children face lead to high suspension rates that cause excessive absences in addition to preventing Black students from receiving education of the same quality as their White peers, both of these factors producing a stark achievement gap. Studies have shown that this can result in students falling behind academically, not reading at grade level by third grade, and eventually dropping out of school. Pushing children out of class increases the chances that they will have contact with the criminal justice system. A 2016 study published on children and suicide suggested that punitive discipline may be one of the reasons suicide rates among Black boys are rising.

Of course, boys aren’t the only Black children targeted for punitive discipline in school. Black girls are more likely than all other female students (and some groups of boys) to be suspended or expelled as well.

Low Representation in Gifted Programs

Poor children and children of color are not only less likely to be identified as gifted and talented but more likely to be identified as requiring special education services by teachers.

A 2016 report published by the American Educational Research Association found that Black third graders are half as likely as White third graders to participate in gifted and talented programs. Written by Vanderbilt University scholars Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding, the report, “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs,” also found that Hispanic students were also about half as likely as White people to be involved in gifted programs.

Why does this imply that racial bias is at play and those White students aren’t just naturally more gifted than children of color?

Because when children of color have teachers of color, the chances are higher that they will be identified as gifted. This indicates that White teachers largely overlook giftedness in Black and brown children.

How Gifted Children Are Identified

Identifying a student as gifted involves a number of considerations. Gifted children may not have the best grades in the class. In fact, they may be bored in class and underachieve as a result. But standardized test scores, portfolios of schoolwork, and the ability of such children to tackle complex subjects despite tuning out in class may all be signs of giftedness.

When a school district in Florida changed the screening criteria for identifying gifted children, officials found that the number of gifted students in all racial groups rose. Rather than rely on teacher or parent referrals for the gifted program, this district used a universal screening process that required all second graders to take a nonverbal test to identify them as gifted. Nonverbal tests are said to be more objective measures of giftedness than verbal tests, especially for English language learners or children who don’t use Standard English.

Students who scored well on the test then moved on to I.Q. tests (which also face allegations of bias). Using the nonverbal test in combination with the I.Q. test led to the odds of Black students being identified as gifted rose by 74% and of Hispanics being identified as gifted by 118%.

Lower Quality Education for Students of Color

A mountain of research has found that poor Black and brown children are the youth least likely to have highly qualified teachers. A study published in 2015 called “Uneven Playing Field? Assessing the Teacher Quality Gap Between Advantaged and Disadvantaged Students” found that in Washington, Black, Hispanic, and Native American youth were most likely to have teachers with the least amount of experience, the worst licensure exam scores, and the poorest record of improving student test scores.

Related research has found that Black, Hispanic, and Native American youth have less access to honors and advanced placement (AP) classes than White youth do. In particular, they are less likely to enroll in advanced science and math classes. This can reduce their chances of being admitted to a four-year college, many of which require completion of at least one high-level math class for admission.

Students of Color Overpoliced and Segregated

Not only are students of color least likely to be identified as gifted and enroll in honors classes, but they are also more likely to attend schools with a greater police presence, increasing the odds that they will enter the criminal justice system. The presence of law enforcement on school campuses also increases the risk of such students being exposed to police violence. Recordings of school police slamming girls of color to the ground during altercations have recently sparked outrage across the nation.

Students of color face racial microaggressions in schools as well, such as being criticized by teachers and administrators for wearing their hair in styles that reflect their cultural heritage. Both Black students and Native American students have been reprimanded in schools for wearing their hair in its natural state or in braided styles.

Worsening matters is that public schools are increasingly segregated, more than they were in the 1970s. Black and brown students are most likely to attend schools with other Black and brown students. Students below the poverty line are most likely to attend schools with other poor students.

As the nation’s racial demographics shift, these disparities pose serious risks to America’s future. Students of color comprise a growing share of public school students. If the United States is to remain a world superpower for generations, it’s incumbent upon Americans to ensure that disadvantaged students receive the same standard of education that privileged students do.

View Article Sources
  1. "Data Snapshot: School Discipline." Civil Rights Data Collection. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Mar. 2014.

  2. Smith, Edward J., and Shaun R. Harper. "Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States." University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, 2015.

  3. Todd, Andrew R., et al. "Does Seeing Faces of Young Black Boys Facilitate the Identification of Threatening Stimuli?" Psychological Science, vol. 27, no. 3, 1 Feb. 2016, doi:10.1177/0956797615624492

  4. Bowman, Barbara T., et al. "Addressing the African American Achievement Gap: Three Leading Educators Issue a Call to Action." Young Children, vol. 73, no.2, May 2018.

  5. Raufu, Abiodun. "School-to-Prison Pipeline: Impact of School Discipline on African American Students." Journal of Education & Social Policy, vol. 7, no. 1, Mar. 2017.

  6. Sheftall, Arielle H., et al. "Suicide in Elementary School-Aged Children and Early Adolescents." Pediatrics, vol. 138, no. 4, Oct. 2016, doi:10.1542/peds.2016-0436

  7. Grissom, Jason A., and Christopher Redding. "Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs." AERA Open, 18 Jan. 2016, doi:10.1177/2332858415622175

  8. Card, David, and Laura Giuliano. "Universal Screening Increases the Representation of Low-Income and Minority Students in Gifted Education." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 113, no. 48, 29 Nov. 2016, pp. 13678-13683., doi:10.1073/pnas.1605043113

  9. Goldhaber, Dan, et al. "Uneven Playing Field? Assessing the Teacher Quality Gap Between Advantaged and Disadvantaged Students." Educational Researcher, vol. 44, no. 5, 1 June 2015, doi:10.3102/0013189X15592622

  10. Klopfenstein, Kristin. "Advanced Placement: Do Minorities Have Equal Opportunity?" Economics of Education Review, vol. 23, no. 2, Apr. 2004, pp. 115-131., doi:10.1016/S0272-7757(03)00076-1

  11. Javdani, Shabnam. "Policing Education: An Empirical Review of the Challenges and Impact of the Work of School Police Officers." American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 63, no. 3-4, June 2019, pp. 253-269., doi:10.1002/ajcp.12306

  12. McArdle, Nancy, and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia. "Consequences of Segregation for Children’s Opportunity and Wellbeing." A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality. Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2017.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Racism Affects Children of Color in Public Schools." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 28). How Racism Affects Children of Color in Public Schools. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Racism Affects Children of Color in Public Schools." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).