Separate and Unequal

October 01, 2013

By Nick Ahamed

From SCOTUS’s Fisher v. University of Texas decision to the anniversary Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” this summer was rife with claims that the post-racial era has come. True– minorities are better off than they were 50 years ago. But for anyone who saw the film “Fruitvale Station,” you’ll know that all are not yet equal under the law.

But while “Fruitvale” highlights the inequalities of our laws, I see it as simply an outcome of a much bigger problem: separate and unequal education. The discrepancy starts far before college admissions and high school dropout rates are issues. Indeed, many studies demonstrate that minority children are less prepared for kindergarten than white children.

They also suggest that half of the black-white achievement gap at high school graduation could be eliminated if all students were equally prepared for the first grade. Others then ask why the gap starts so early. Two such studies find that your neighborhood and your family background are strong determinants.

In the latter case, researchers demonstrate that beyond socio-economic status, simply the number of parents and siblings of a student can significantly affect his or her performance. They also note that black students are twice as likely to live in non-traditional households, where individual parents can be absent, than white students– a fact that explains, in part, the race disparity in education.

As these out-of-school effects start to take hold, they are compounded by in-school differences. Forty percent of African-American students don’t graduate high school. Claude Steele argues that this number is so high because of stereotypes and anxiety. Minority students face a “negative intellectual stereotype” and are anxious about confirming that generalization; that anxiety decreases performance in educational settings.

Studying Stanford students, Steele and Joshua Aronson conclude that putting African-Americans in an ability-testing situation leads to lower performances than whites in that situation or African-Americans who took the same test in a non-diagnostic context. Similarly, the University of Oklahoma’s Jason Osborne concludes that as much as 40 percent of the race achievement gap can be explained by this stereotype-induced anxiety. The mere specter of racism continues to affect schools today.

Stereotypes, income inequalities, non-traditional families– all these conditions make it difficult for minority students to succeed in school. As a result, African-Americans score about 100 points lower on both the SAT math and verbal sections than whites, on average.

Among many such statistics, we know that the probability of black students attending a highly selective college is lower than the probability for whites, regardless of income. But more fundamentally problematic than college underrepresentation are the long-term effects of the education gap.