Like Cops Who Kill Unarmed Black Adults, Pre-K Teachers See Same 'Bad Dude' in Kids

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Editor’s note: Once a month, this column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity.

Perception is a matter of life and death.

Now a new study from Yale University delivers the news that even black babies suffer the burdens that racial stereotyping inflicts.


Preschool educators’ implicit biases contribute to uneven rates of suspension and expulsion disfavoring black children. Meanwhile, black teachers tend to dish out longer punishments.

The Yale study connects the established phenomenon of educators doling out harsher punishments to the research on unconscious biases—ingrained stereotypes and automatic associations of a particular group—and how they lead to discrimination.


Ingrained stereotypes may influence teachers’ treatment of students in school and/or how teachers perceive their role in preventing an imagined baby monster from becoming another “bad dude.”

In Tulsa, Okla., moments before black, unarmed Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by Police Officer Betty Shelby, another officer from a circling helicopter hundreds of feet away was heard, based on an audio recording, saying, “That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something.”


Shelby has since been booked on charges of first-degree manslaughter. Similarly, in Ferguson, Mo., then-Police Officer Darren Wilson told a grand jury in the case of the shooting death of Michael Brown that Brown “looked like a demon.” Experts claimed that unconscious racism was involved in both cases.

Teachers aren’t immune to societal influences that install fear of black men into our psyches. Teachers aren’t shooting children, but the consequences of suspensions and expulsions in preschool are related to numerous negative educational and life outcomes, which take away quality of life.


The Yale study, which is titled, “Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions?” provides greater insight as to why suspension and expulsion rates are higher for black students. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education has previously reported that black children (pdf) represented 18 percent of preschool enrollment in 2012, but 48 percent of preschoolers receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. Now the Yale study reports that black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more suspensions as their white peers.

Some educators will say that black children exhibit more challenging behaviors. But the research suggests that teachers are on the lookout for trouble before children of color ever make a wrong move.


Researchers gave the selected educators two tasks. In the first task, participants were told to watch a video in which they’d see students of varying races and both genders exhibit challenging behaviors (but none ever appeared).

For the second task, researchers had participants read a vignette about a challenging preschooler that had a randomized name that suggested the student was a white or black boy or girl. Randomly assigned family background was included in some, but not all, of the vignettes.


The findings revealed the not-so-hidden biases that are negatively assigned to black children.

On the first task, when participants expected negative behaviors, their eyes focused more on black children, and black boys more so. Findings suggest possible differences in biases along racial lines. The presence of the children’s background information lowered perceived severity ratings when the child’s race matched the participants’. However, the severity ratings increased when races did not match.


Black and white teachers were equally likely to suspend or expel a child—apparently it’s universally OK to punish black children. However, “[b]lack participants recommended expelling or suspending children more days than white participants.”

This finding was discouraging but not surprising. I felt reverberations of “It all starts at home” rhetoric, which is prevalent in the black community. By sending a child back home, teachers essentially demand that a parent do a better job.


Knowing the family background of the child impacted how severely teachers perceived challenging behaviors. White educators who read vignettes that didn’t include family background rated white children’s behavior more severely than black children’s; but when they did have background information, black and white children were rated equally. When black teachers didn’t have family background information, they rated black children’s behavior as more severe than white children’s behavior; but when black participants had family background information, they rated white children’s behavior more severely.

The researchers assert that the differing impacts of background knowledge show that our racial attitudes are absorbed differently according to race. Without family background information, researchers theorize, white teachers “hold black preschoolers to a lower behavioral standard, whereas black teachers hold these black preschoolers to very high standards,” which explains the dispensing of longer disciplinary periods out of school. Consequently, black students are burdened by both low and high expectations.


The study has its own inherent biases. Participants were recruited from one large annual conference. Educational conferences often mirror social arrangements, which may increase the likelihood of selection bias.

The demographics of the teachers selected were representational, but generalizing off of one conference on its face is asking for trouble. In addition, we know from recent killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police that video evidence is interpreted very differently.


Nonetheless, this study confirms what we see being played out in the life courses of black people like unarmed Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. From the cradle to the grave, black people aren’t given a fair chance at simply being human.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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