How Race Matters in the Classroom

Show Me the Numbers: Do black kids have problems in schools because so few teachers look like them?

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Teachers comprise the largest professional occupation in the United States, accounting for the most professional employees among college-educated white women, black women and black men. Despite the large number of teachers relative to other professions held by college-educated black men, they represent less than 2 percent of the teaching force, of a student body that is 7 percent black male. I will address the reasons for that more fully in an upcoming column, but suffice it to say that with teaching already being the top profession for the black men qualified to do it, increasing significantly their share of the teaching force will be difficult.

By comparison, white female teachers comprise 62 percent of the teaching force, of a student body that is 26 percent white female. Considering the entire student body, the U.S. has one white female teacher for every 15 students and one black male teacher for every 534 students. See the graphic below for a complete picture of the racial and gender diversity in the U.S. teaching force.


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The truth is, males of all races are underrepresented in the U.S. teaching force. The percent of white male preschool through 12th-grade students is twice the percent of white male teachers; the percent of black male students is more than three times the percent of black male teachers; and the percent of Hispanic male students is almost seven times the percent of Hispanic male teachers.

The overrepresentation of white female teachers may mitigate some issues associated with the lower number of white male teachers, because they are culturally aligned with white males. However, irrespective of gender, black and Hispanic teachers are underrepresented in the U.S. teaching force. Nationally, black and Hispanic boys will spend the majority of their school experiences under cross-gender and cross-cultural supervision.

If Most Teachers Are White, So What?

Racial differences between the teacher and student population can matter. In a recent study with my Howard University colleague, Dr. Mercedes Ebanks, I analyzed the response patterns of 8,986 students who completed the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement of 2009. We found that black students were less likely to perceive empathy and respect from their teachers and more likely to view the school as a punitive learning environment than white students.  

White students' response patterns demonstrated a structure whereby teacher empathy and respect were central to students' academic success, school safety had no measurable influence on teachers' compassion for their students, and teacher punishment had no measurable impact on students' grades. On the other hand, black students' response patterns reflected a dynamic whereby school safety significantly diminished the overall level of empathy and respect that students perceived from teachers, and punishment from teachers significantly reduced students' grades.