By John B. Diamond & Amanda E. Lewis
November/December 2015 issue of Poverty & Race
While black/white differences in educational outcomes narrowed substantially since the 1970s and most of the 1980s (at least in part as the result of school desegregation efforts), the gaps have since largely stagnated and significant differences persist in grades, test scores, and high school and college graduation rates—with whites having better educational outcomes on average than their black (and Latina/o) classmates. These gaps are reflected not only in national test score data but can also be seen in specific schools and districts. Riverview, a middle-income suburban school with a racially mixed student population, is just such a district. (To protect the identities of those we interviewed, we don’t name the city or school where we did our study but use the pseudonym Riverview. Rather than being idiosyncratic, however, Riverview shares many similarities with diverse suburban districts nationally.) Riverview has experienced many of the positive academic and social outcomes associated with integration; however, racial differences in school still remain. A key challenge for those who support integration efforts is to make sure that schools like Riverview live up to their promise to enhance the educational outcomes of all of their students.
About a decade ago, a principal from Riverview called and asked us to help him better understand what was going on and to hopefully make changes in the school. That initial request led to us conducting 171 interviews with students, parents, teachers, administrators and school staff and to analyze survey data from 25,000 students across 15 school districts including Riverview. It culminated in our recent book, Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools (Oxford Univ. Press, 2015).
When we started this research, we were familiar with the research on the achievement gap but felt that it had limitations. For example, some work used large data sets to focus on racial differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds but was unable to fully account for racial outcome differences. This led some scholars to argue that in addition to examining the implications of inequalities outside schools, we also needed studies that more carefully unpacked the micro-level dynamics inside schools that might contribute to the gap.
In addition to this, we were concerned that race itself was undertheorized in work on racial achievement gaps. The idea of race is everywhere in the field of education. However, after reading much of the research, we found that too much of it treated race as variable, showing that race had statistical significance in examinations of test scores but not explaining how or why it mattered in the day-to-day life of schools. We still found ourselves asking “what’s racial about these gaps?”
Finally, we were interested in understanding how race mattered in a self-proclaimed progressive community that prided itself on its egalitarian beliefs. As one of the school’s security guards stated in describing the community, “Diverse—ethnically, socially, academically, spiritually. I mean, just diverse. And I think that’s what makes this place so wonderful.” Or as one white parent argued, “[The diversity] was a real plus when we were deciding to come here.” Riverview is in some ways a model of stable diversity. When we began our study, the school was about 48% white, 41% black, 8.5% Latina/o, and 2% Asian.
Does Oppositional Culture Explain the Gaps?
We embarked on our work first by taking up one of the most common explanations for racial differences in educational outcomes—the oppositional culture argument (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu, 2008). This argument suggests that because of racial discrimination in schools and in the labor market, black students inherit a general opposition to dominant institutions like schools from their families and communities. This opposition is theorized to lead to black adolescents criticizing their black peers for engaging in behaviors that are identified with whites (some of which are school-related behaviors that contribute to academic success).
This storyline has become a taken-for-granted explanation for the black-white achievement gap, both for those inside and outside schools, showing up frequently not only in research literature but also in newspapers, magazines, and even in the political discourse. It was at his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that then Senate candidate Barack Obama argued for the need to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” But like most previous studies that have tested this phenomenon, we found no evidence of race-based oppositional culture among black students. In fact, black students were more pro-school than their white counterparts and received positive messages about education from their parents and peers. Moreover, students’ pro-school academic orientations had only minor implications for their academic outcomes and therefore do almost nothing to explain race-based achievement disparities.
Performance Expectations: Academic and Behavioral
What was going on at Riverview? While race is ever-present in the discussion of educational outcomes, much less attention has been paid to how it shapes students’ day-to-day lives in schools. One of the first things we learned was that race was linked to how students were treated at Riverview, both in the academic and disciplinary domains. We learned early in our interviews that people’s beliefs about race were intertwined with their beliefs about intelligence in the academic domain at Riverview. As a teacher, Ms. Tyson, stated:
Well, if you are a student of color, could be an African-American student or Latino, there are assumptions that you don’t care about school, that you…you don’t have the capability of being successful in school. And so those are negative messages that they have to deal with…every day.
So black and Latina/o students are forced to deal with these low expectations as they navigate the school and deal with teachers. How students cope with these low expectations was brought home to us early in our study when one black female student sat for an interview. She explained that every semester she approached the teachers in her mostly honors classes to let them know she was a serious student because she assumed they would hold low expectations of her. Prior to the interview, she had placed her honor roll certificate on the table in a very deliberate fashion, perhaps sending us researchers a signal similar to the one she sends her teachers.
Beliefs about race and intelligence also shape how peers perceive and interact with each other. As one white student stated even more bluntly, “I think that usually the perception is throughout almost most places that black people are dumber than white people and Hispanics are not as smart as everyone else.” Such perceptions were reflected in peer dynamics in classrooms.
These ideas about race and intelligence are reinforced by the distribution of student across course levels. There are essentially three course levels at Riverview—regular, honors, and advanced placement (AP). In a school that is less than 50% white, whites make up nearly 80% of the students in honors class and almost 90% of the students in AP classes. This distribution of students across course levels reinforced the link in people’s minds about academic ability, and led students to define class levels in racial terms. Julius, a black junior, argued that, “The fact is that Riverview is two schools in one. There is the honors white school, and then there’s the other school.” Richard, a white sophomore, explained the composition of classrooms like this, “I mean if you look at the numbers, I’m betting there are more white kids that are in the honors classes, and more black kids that are in minority classes.”
Because these spaces were partially defined by race, black and Latina/o students were often made to feel unwelcome in higher level classes. One administrator shared to following story:
There was a teacher who had a minority student come into their honors class and you know he was your stereotypical baggy jeans, big shirt, hat turned sideways, you know, and she said to him, “You know I think you belong in my next period, you’re too early” and assumed that he was a general student. And he’s like, “No, no, my schedule says I belong here.”
Maria talked about being a Latina in honors classes:
Well, there’s been times where I’ve been in [honors] classes with white kids, and I tried my best at times. When I do, the white girls, they’re always going in their own little clique, and look at the Mexicans as if we were dumb or something. It just makes us feel bad.
These students’ experiences are compelling, particularly considering that they go to school in a self-proclaimed liberal context. However, they also reflect the reality of race in the United States. Racial categories emerged as “folk theories” between the 16th and 18th Centuries and became codified and standardized in the early 18th Century as a way for Europeans to justify slavery, genocide and colonialism (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). Over time, stereotypes about African Americans’ lack of intelligence and propensity for violence and criminal behavior developed to the point where they became status beliefs—widely shared cultural beliefs about members of social groups (Ridgeway & Erickson, 2000; p. 580). Knowing that these ideas are widely shared in the society, and influence social interaction at the conscious and subconscious level, is essential to understanding how race matters in our schools and classrooms today.
We found that race also shaped how students were treated with regard to discipline at Riverview. Black students were more likely to be suspended at Riverview than their white counterparts—a patterns that is reflected in schools across the country. In 2009, black students made up 35% of the students in the high school but 70% of those who faced in-school suspension and 60% of those who were suspended outside of school. While this is obviously important, we were more interested in how students experienced the school’s discipline process on a daily basis because most students are never suspended but all students have their movement through the school regulated and their behavior scrutinized.
Here again, we found that race mattered within the discipline process. Teachers, students and administrators pointed out multiple ways that discipline practices were unequal. They reported a pattern in which black students were inherently suspect and their white classmates were treated as innocent. One example that came up repeatedly was differences in how freely students were able to move through the hallways during class periods. The Riverview discipline code states that, “Students who … leave the room during the period must get a valid pass from the teacher or supervisor…. Students without a valid pass … face school consequences.” However, members of the Riverview community felt that this rule was not applied fairly. As Samantha, a white student, stated:
I think security guards … point out African Americans a lot more than like white. … Like I’ll walk down the hall without a pass, and they’ll just let you go.” According to Tim, a white junior, “[Black kids] just get singled out. …white kids have been trained more to get away with it. I don’t … think there’s that much of a difference in actual degree of rule-breaking but … white kids … there’s always been an expectation that they’re not gonna do it.”
There were also ways that race and gender intersected to impact students’ experiences. The discipline code is very explicit regarding how students should dress: “Brief and revealing clothing is not appropriate in school. Examples include tank or halter tops, garments with spaghetti straps … clothing that is ‘see-through,’ … or exposes one’s midriff … or skirts … shorter than 3-inches above the knee.” However, one teacher discussed how race shaped the enforcement of this policy. “We had a policy that the girls couldn’t have their belly showing. All you saw walking in the hall [was] girls with their white bellies out. Black girls sent home. They [black girls] were pissed off.”
Tiffany, a junior, argued that the dress code is not enforced equally for black and white girls. “We’re not allowed to wear spaghetti straps. But you see a lot of white girls wearing spaghetti straps, halter tops, tube tops stuff that we [black girls] would get sent home for.” Tiffany argued that a number of her friends had been sent home for the clothes they wore to school and that security guards had disciplined her for her clothing as well. Here different stereotypes are likely at play—in particular the long history of reading of black females bodies as hyper-sexual while white female bodies are seen as innocent (Collins, 2000). In both ways, assumptions about white innocence—bodily and metaphorically—yield a payoff as their whiteness buys some students the benefit of the doubt and less scrutiny for both their dress and their behavior in the hallways.
Within the disciplinary domain, white parents (who had somewhat more resources than black and Latina/o parents) used those resources to influence how their children were treated. One student discussed how students were treated differently if they were caught in school with marijuana:
White kids get caught with pot all the time … The school can’t be dealing with these folks’ parents, because their parents are going to start suing the school …. When you get a black kid, and you suspend them for having pot, or you kick them out, what are the parents going to do? They don’t have the money, or they don’t know the resources. … That’s why I think it continuously happens.
An administrator corroborated Julius’s take on this situation, discussing how white parents intervene in discipline procedures around drugs:
I have had parents come in to appeal white students’ …disciplinary actions. And rarely will they say, “my son didn’t do that or would not do that or my daughter would not.” Their issue is “how do we get it out of the record? Can we not call it that because we don’t want it to impact college admissions.” … I’d say I hear it twenty times a year. A student got caught in possession of some marijuana. The parent never said to me, “he didn’t have it, he didn’t do it.” The parent argued that we call it possession and possession means you have it and you are…it’s yours to manipulate and to sell…” It was never his. He was just looking at it. It was in his hands. So that possession is not real possession.
Such interventions reflect a certain sense of entitlement, but also the ways in which parents use their privileged social position to ensure advantages for their children. This leads to the final lesson we learned from Riverview.
|Median Family income (1999 dollars)||Family living in owner-occupied housing (%)||Individuals below poverty line (%)|
|white (non-Hispanic or Latino)||$103,145||58.6||7.8|
|black (non-Hispanic or Latino)||$46,422||44.1||13.9|
|Hispanic or Latino||$55,729||37.8||14.0|
In addition to the low expectations and unfair discipline treatment that black and Latina/o students faced at Riverview, we also found one of the key reasons that change is so difficult —white parents. While most members of the Riverview community were middle-class, white parents had greater economic resources than black and Latin@ parents (see Table 1). White parents were thus able to use these greater resources to influence district policy.
While Riverview was a self-proclaimed racially progressive community, and many folks moved to the community because of its diversity, as we mentioned above, the high school was segregated at the classroom level by educational tracking. White parents recognized the segregated composition of their children’s classes—with white students having a virtual monopoly on higher-level classes—but they resisted efforts to change this pattern. We refer to this practice as opportunity- hoarding—the process through which dominant groups who have control over some good (e.g., education) regulate its circulation, thus preventing out-groups from having full access to it (Lewis & Diamond, 2015). There is a long history of whites’ efforts to monopolize educational access and exclude others from it, from early laws barring black people from getting any education at all, to creating segregated and unequal educational institutions for black and Latina/o students.
The contemporary manifestation of opportunity-hoarding at Riverview seems much more benign but continues to undermine the educational opportunities of black and Latin@ students. White parents argued that the honors and AP classes were better than regular classes and advocated for their children to be in them even though this led to segregation and the monopolization of educational resources. One middle-class white mother argued that:
I think it’s an excellent high school… especially for kids who are in … the honors program… and AP classes…With our daughter who’s now entering in the fall … [after a debate about whether to send her to Riverview or private school], we told her that, “if you… can’t get into [honors]…can’t attain the grades, you’re out of [Riverview].”
At the same time, these parents also recognized that the school’s educational tracks were racially segregated. As Timothy put it in discussing his children’s classes, “Their honors and AP classes…there were not many kids who were Hispanic or African-American in those classes.” Despite the recognition that tracking undermined diversity, the vast majority of the white parents we interviewed resisted changing this system. One parent put it this way:
I know there are parents who are great proponents of just “no leveling,” but sorry, I don’t want my kid to sit in a class of 30 and have it be a waste of their time. I just don’t, you know. I’ve been there…I don’t know what I would change, to be honest …it’s a pretty good institution. But…my children are all at the honors level.
In addition to the quality of the classes, there were additional advantages built into these tracked classes. On such advantage was weighted grades. For example, a student who takes a class for honors credit and receives a “B,” which is typically a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, would instead get 3.5 points towards their overall GPA. If students take AP classes and take an AP exam, their grades are weighted one whole GPA point. Many administrators recognized that these grade weights contributed to achievement disparities (given the overall racial composition of the courses) but felt that because of parental pressures changes were not possible. Ms. Foster, for example, argued that “some changes [would be] just too much for the district to take,” stating that she would “love to get away with the weighted grades…but I think people would just die.”
Other administrators expressed frustration that when they tried to make changes that would address racial differences in educational opportunity, these efforts faced resistance from white parents. As one administrator told us,
I counted them at one point. [I attended] over 200 meetings of—with parents of kids … to talk about the standards and the fact that we needed common standards for all kids, not different standards for different kids; and to reassure people that our high-end kids were not gonna—we’re not—this was not about dummying down the curriculum.
These parents were often able to pressure the school with threats that they would leave the district, and would encourage others like themselves to do the same, if their concerns with not addressed. Such actions shaped district actions in important ways.
Our examination of race and education at Riverview revealed how past examinations have barked up the wrong tree (emphasizing oppositional culture where none exists), how societal beliefs about race shape daily interactions in schools, and how white parents use their greater resources to hoard educational opportunities for their children and exclude others. In order to effectively address these patterns, we need to take the impact of race seriously and acknowledge how it shapes students’ everyday experiences in schools. This means that as teachers are trained, inducted and provided with professional learning opportunities, they need to interrogate how race can shape their own beliefs and practices and the organizational contexts in which they work in ways that exacerbate racial inequalities. We also need white parents in integrated schools to recognize their role in perpetuating the achievement gap and change their behaviors, and for school leaders to become more skilled at resisting these parents’ efforts to hoard educational opportunity.
1 This article summarizes our book Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. Several passages and evidence used here also appear in that book and in our other writings on this subject.
2 As others have argued, the “achievement gap” terminology tends to place the onus of school outcomes on the students without regard to the real opportunity gaps that exist for students from different racial backgrounds (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Carter & Welner, 2013). We use the term here because of its wide use in the literature and in the popular discourse.
3 Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder
Carter, Prudence & Kevin Welner, eds. 2013. Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition). New York: Routledge.
Fordham, Signithia & John U. Ogbu. 1986. “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the “burden of acting White.’” Urban Review 18: 176-206.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 2006. “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools.” Educational Researcher 35:3-12.
Ogbu, John U. 2008. Minority Status, Oppositional Culture, and Schooling. New York: Routledge.
Ridgeway, Cecilia L. & Kristan Glasgow Erickson. 2000. “Creating and Spreading Status Beliefs.” American Journal of Sociology 106(3): 579-615.
Smedley, Audrey & Brian D. Smedley. 2005. “Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race.” American Psychologist60(1): 16-26.
John B. Diamond is Hoefs-Bascom Assoc. Prof. at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. firstname.lastname@example.org
Amanda E. Lewis is the Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and an Associate Professor in the Departments of African American Studies and Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on how race shapes educational opportunities and on how our ideas about race get negotiated in everyday life. email@example.com