Sometimes the most racist aspects of a society are right there in front of you, but no one seems to notice.
Take the racial achievement gap.
It’s a term used to describe the fact that black and Latino students don’t do as well academically as white students.
Why does it even exist?
Why do students of color in the United States achieve less than their white peers?
As of 2018, they had the lowest mean score of any racial group on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
And it’s been like that for more than half a century.
In 1964, a Department of Education report found that the average black high school senior scored below 87% of white seniors (in the 13 percentile). Fifty years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that black seniors had narrowed the gap until they were merely behind 81% of white seniors (scoring in the 19th percentile).
So what does that mean?
It’s a question that has haunted our education system for more than a century.
And the various answers that have been offered to explain it often reveal more about our society than they do about black and Latino children.
CLAIM 1: People of color are just genetically inferior
I know. This sounds glaringly racist.
And it is.
Yet this was the favorite answer for the achievement gap at the start of the 20th Century (More on that later).
However, it has been espoused as recently as 1995 by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve where the authors attributed relative black failure and low socio-economic status to biological inadequacy.
Murray and Herrnstein sparked such an intense academic debate at the time that the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a Task Force on Intelligence. Instead of soundly disproving this theory, the resulting APA report could come to no definite conclusion: “At this time, no one knows what is responsible for the differential,” the authors wrote.
Today the idea that people of color are genetically inferior has been soundly defeated.
There is simply no evidence that racial characteristics are strongly correlated with intelligence.
If it were true, for example, you’d expect to see the same achievement gap from native born Africans immigrating to this country as those who are born in the US. But that is not the case. In fact, we see just the opposite effect – a sizable percentage of African immigrants earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.
This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.
If the problem was mere genes, this wouldn’t be so.
CLAIM 2: America’s people of color are culturally inferior
You’d think it would be obvious how racist such a claim is, but it is an increasingly popular explanation of the achievement gap.
In The End of Racism, popular conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza blamed the racial accomplishment gap on black cultural defects. “[T]he old discrimination” has declined and been replaced by “rational discrimination” based “on accurate group generalizations,” wrote D’Souza.
In other words, it’s not genes, but pathological community values that keep many people of color at the bottom. Black and brown students would do better in school if their culture fostered hard work, determination, grit and valued learning. They’d learn more if their parents weren’t always in jail or having innumerable children to increase their food stamp benefits.
From a purely ideological standpoint, this is textbook racism – the belief that some racially defined groups are in some sense better or worse than others.
It’s the minstrel show as case study. It boils down the attributes of 40 million people to mere stereotypes and pretends that they’re real.
The truth is most people of color don’t fit the corny clichés. In the real world, most black folks do not commit crime, only about 6 percent of unmarried black women give birth each year, and most black people are not recipients of welfare benefits. Indeed, fewer than 200,000 black adults in the entire US currently receive cash welfare benefits from the government. That’s out of about 30 million black adults in all. So these are not cultural norms.
Furthermore, black crime rates, out-of-wedlock birthrates, and welfare dependence have gone down in recent years, while white rates have increased.
Such claims show more about those making them than the people the claims are supposed to be about. When a black person struggles, the cause is assumed to be a deeply ingrained cultural attribute. When the same happens to white people, it’s an anomaly.
For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s the media blamed black culture and black communities for the crack epidemic. But today those same talking heads excuse the mostly white and rural opioid crisis as an aberration. No one seems to claim that it is because the white family is breaking down or white culture is in decline.
Black families are disproportionately poor and thus suffer higher rates of everything that comes with it.
But this is not an artifact of their culture anymore than it is for poor whites.
CLAIM 3: People of color experience higher rates of poverty and thus struggle more academically.
Finally we have a claim based in fact and not racial stereotypes!
When we look at test scores, like those on the NAEP, we see that state racial achievement gaps are strongly correlated with state racial socioeconomic disparities.
Poor people achieve worse academic outcomes than wealthier people. And this is true across race and ethnicity.
It just makes sense. Living in poverty means less access to healthcare, neonatal care, pre-kindergarten, and fewer books in the home. It often means fewer educated family members to serve as a model. And it often means suffering from malnutrition and psychological trauma. Impoverished parents usually have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet and thus have less time to help with homework or see to their children. All of this has a direct impact on education.
The fact that a larger percentage of people of color are poor, helps explain the disparity of achievement between races.
The fact that achievement gaps tend to be largest in places where racial socioeconomic disparities are largest, supports this theory. Moreover, in neighborhoods with greater socioeconomic equality, the racial achievement gap is likewise smaller or nonexistent.
Achievement gaps are strongly correlated with racial gaps in income, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and educational attainment.
However, poverty, alone, does not explain away the problem.
Even when racial disparities are few and far between (typically in states with small black and/or Hispanic populations), the gap can persist.
We shouldn’t discount poverty. It goes a long way to explaining the problem. It just doesn’t go all the way.
CLAIM 4: Racist policies and bias widen the achievement gap
There are numerous factors that can adversely affect achievement for children of color above and beyond poverty. These include the availability and quality of early childhood education, the quality of public schools, patterns of residential and school segregation, and state educational and social policies.
For example, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board, school segregation is still a problem. In fact, in many parts of the country, they are actually more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation has more than doubled nationwide. That’s twice the number of schools comprised almost entirely of students living in high poverty and/or students of color.
The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastructure.
Even where segregation isn’t a problem, racist policies can creep into the academic culture.
A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that black students in K-12 schools are far more likely to be disciplined — whether through suspension or referral to law enforcement — than their racial counterparts.
A 2014 study found that people generally view black boys as older and less innocent starting at the age of 10. Another study released in 2017 produced similar results, finding that Americans overall view black girls as less innocent and more mature for their age, from ages 5 to 14.
These have real world consequences for children’s academic development. If even well-meaning (and mostly white) teachers are more likely to see children of color as potential trouble makers, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And kids who are in trouble often have more difficulty making the grade.
Finally, there is the influence of charter and voucher schools, many of which target their enrollment at students of color.
These are schools that are (at least in part) publicly funded but privately managed. They are not required to have nearly the same transparency as traditional public schools, don’t have to be democratically controlled and can often be run for a profit.
They can cut services to students on a whim and if students struggle, they can give them the boot forcing them to try to catch up at the local public school.
These practices are so worrying that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Lives Matter have both called for a moratorium on all new charter schools. Journey for Justice has gone even further with a call for more community schools.
Bias and policies like these can have a big impact on students, but we haven’t even discussed the largest culprit.
CLAIM 5: The standardized testing industry is essentially biased
We’ve talked a lot about why there’s a racial achievement gap.
We haven’t talked that much about if.
You have to admit, it’s counterintuitive to think that there should be academic hierarchies based on race. One race is better than others at school? Really? Isn’t that, itself, a racist assumption?
If there is no evidence for genetic or social differences along racial lines, can we explain everything else by way of socioeconomics and racist policies?
Perhaps. But even more so, we need to question the mechanism that started this whole debate in the first place – standardized testing.
That is the primary mechanism used to determine if there is a racial achievement gap at all.
If that mechanism is biased, so is the result.
This is particularly troubling for an industry that was built on the eugenicist premises with which we started this article.
Standardized testing, as we know it, originates from the work of Francis Galton – Charles Darwin’s cousin and an English statistician. In 1869, he wrote in Hereditary Genius that “[t]he average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” Galton nearly invented the western eugenics movement, but couldn’t find a method to test his theories.
Enter France’s Alfred Binet and Thodore Simon. In 1905 they developed an IQ test that 11 years later was revised by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman for use in America.
In his book, The Measurement of Intelligence, Terman wrote that these “experimental” tests will show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.”
For Terman, the achievement gap wasn’t a problem. It was a feature he was actively trying to prove, and he thought he had done so with his experiments on 1.7 million U.S. servicemen in World War I.
His deeply biased work convinced a generation of scholars. Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham presented the results as evidence of genetic racial hierarchy in A Study of American Intelligence – merely three years before he used these same ideas to craft the SAT test in 1926.
Though that same SAT test has been revised since Brigham’s time, the fundamental principals behind it remain the same. Along with the PSAT, it was taken by more than 6.7 million students in the 2015-16 school year.
The ideals of the eugenicists lost popularity after World War II, but they were by no means finished. Famed physicist William Shockley and educational psychologist Arthur Jensen carried these concepts into the 1960s before they were revived again in The Bell Curve in the ‘90s.
These are not just bugs in the system. They are what the system was meant to prove in the first place.
By defining academic success or failure primarily as success or failure on standardized tests, we’ve effectively barred generations of children of color from the benefits of an education. And in using these same tests for “accountability” purposes to reward or punish their schools by granting or denying resources, high stakes testing has become the academic gatekeeper. Biased assessments have been used to grant real world opportunity.
How many opportunities have been denied because of them? How many black and brown children have been denied entry to college, professions, graduate schools, jobs, places at the highest ranked schools?
How many young black and brown children have been convinced of their own ignorance because of a test score of dubious quality?
So we return to the question with which we began this article:
Why is there a racial achievement gap?
The answer is NOT because of genetic or cultural deficiencies in children of color.
The gap stems from a combination of disproportionate levels of poverty among black and brown people, racist bias and policies embedded in our public school system and – more than anything else – reliance on a flawed assessment system.
If we want to really close the achievement gap, we must do several things. First, we must continually discredit and criticize the genetic and social critique of racial minorities at the heart of the conservative movement.
Next, we must create a more just and equitable education system. This means fairly funding our schools. We must increase integration. We must halt the spread of charter and voucher schools. We need to make sure all our teachers and principals have cultural sensitivity training and increase the numbers of teachers of color in our school system.
And we must get rid of our system of standardized testing.
It’s a tall order, but that’s the only way to close an even more pressing gap – the gap between our reality and our ideals.
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