How Race Matters in the Classroom
Show Me the Numbers: Do black kids have problems in schools because so few teachers look like them?
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.
These results suggest that many teachers may be operating under an implicit association bias, whereby on a subconscious level, they may view black children as security risks. Researchers at Harvard University have found that many prejudicial attitudes operate beyond our conscious awareness. Nevertheless, they can negatively influence our judgments and behaviors.