How Systemic Racism Infiltrates Education

A Broken Promise

Go to school, do well, get into college, and you’re on your way to a good job and a happy life. You put in the work, and you’ll be rewarded. That’s the promise of education. Sounds great. Like it should be true.

But the closer you look, the more this promise begins to seem a bit more like a fantasy. No one denies that education is important. It’s just that the path to achievement and advancement is easier for some than for others. People of color face barriers to success every single day, from a very early age, that whites never even have to think—let alone worry—about.


Racism Starts Early

Remember preschool? Learning to write your name, playing with dolls and blocks, jumping in puddles. That’s the preschool experience.

Also part of the experience, apparently? Racism. It turns out that black students are much more likely to be suspended from preschool than white students. They make up 18% of all preschoolers, but represent almost 50% of all preschool suspensions. Compare that to white kids, who make up 43% of all preschool enrollment, yet represent 26% of those receiving suspensions.

Why is this happening? A recent study might shine some light on what’s going on. It found that black boys as young as 10 are routinely perceived to be significantly older and less innocent, when compared to white boys of the same age. In our society, this suspicion of guilt follows people of color throughout their lives.


The Story Continues in K-12

Sadly, you won’t be surprised to discover that the news doesn’t magically get better for K-12 kids. Let’s run through some of the data released by the US Department of Education in 2014:  

  • Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities—and a ridiculous 36% of those with disabilities who are restrained at school.
  • When black students and white students commit similar infractions, black students are suspended and expelled three times more often than white students.
  • Black students make up 16% of student enrollment, but represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to arrest. White students, on the other hand, make up 51% of enrollment, 41% of students referred to law enforcement, and 39% of those arrested.


The School-to-Prison Pipeline

According to a 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police officers, and an additional 39,000 security guards, working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. Since when did school discipline require so many police or security officers?

We think it’s particularly troubling that law enforcement is so often being called in to discipline black students on school grounds. This phenomenon has become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” because it’s channeling students right into the criminal justice system (where people of color can expect unfair treatment as a matter of course). When a simple altercation at school leads to an arrest for assault, something has gone terribly wrong.


“So Maybe I’ll Just Drop Out”

Repeated suspensions and expulsions also eventually convince many students to drop out, and a disproportionate number of those leaving school are African American, Latino, or Native American. Makes sense, then, that the graduation rate for those students lags well behind the rate for white students.


Are We Still Effectively Segregated?

The problems with K-12 education run deep. While the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education case officially did away with the doctrine of “separate but equal,” many school systems remain segregated (some studies even suggest that segregation may be worsening), with schools that are anything but equal. And schools attended predominately by people of color are chronically underfunded.

Kids at these underfunded schools regularly have less experienced and even unlicensed teachers. Their academic performance suffers as a result, which can lead many to drop out, while putting the dream of college at risk for those who remain.


Post-Secondary is Not Post-Racial Either

In recognition of these ever-multiplying roadblocks to advancement, many colleges have developed affirmative-action programs to ensure that students of color still have a chance to take advantage of a higher education. For some reason, despite evidence that affirmative action has a positive effect on students, colleges, and society overall, critics (not to mention the Trump administration) continue to trot out debunked arguments against it.

But even students who do manage to get into college do not find an idyllic, post-racial wonderland waiting for them. For example, a recent study found that college professors, spanning race and gender, respond more consistently to questions and requests from students with “white sounding” names. And some researchers argue that the constant stress of dealing with things like this and other daily encounters with racism and prejudice can result in mental health issues that often go undetected.


Even The Debt Is Uneven

Not only that, black students routinely take on more debt than white students to go to college in the first place, making it all the more difficult to accumulate wealth afterward. That, of course, puts pressure on graduates to find jobs. But guess what? Black graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as white graduates Even black students who graduated with degrees in so-called “high demand” fields, like engineering, are struggling: 10% of black engineering graduates, for example, are unemployed, compared to 6% of all engineering graduates. Perhaps that has something to do with the study that showed that you’re 50% less likely to get a job interview if your application has a black-sounding name.


Be Part of the Solution

Let’s be clear: systemic racism is a corrosive and widespread problem in our society, and we all need to do a better job of confronting it — in our towns, in our neighborhoods, and in ourselves.

Want to be part of the solution? Here’s how you can take action:

  • Watch the amazing video below from our friends at Demos about the roots of systemic racism.
  •  Start a conversation. Once you know the truth, it’s hard to keep it to yourself. So tell a friend, a sibling, a roommate, your kooky uncle…that systemic racism is real, and we all need to be fighting to end it.
  • Learn more about the wonderful work being done to end systemic racism in the education system. Check out the Advancement Project’s I Dream A School and Ending the School to Jailhouse Track campaigns, and the Schott Foundation's Opportunity to Learn Network.