Two students. One is black and the other is white. On Tuesday, they both refuse to complete the math worksheet. On Wednesday, neither will stop talking during lessons.
Same behavior. Will they receive the same punishment?
A new Stanford University study predicts that the black student will be punished more harshly. Why? Not because of overt racism. Rather, harsher discipline might be the result of unconscious partiality to the white student, a phenomenon called “implicit bias” by psychologists. The study also finds that the bias might be just as likely to come from a black teacher as a white one.
The significance of the finding isn’t confined to classroom walls. When students are suspended or expelled, it becomes much less likely that they will graduate or go to college, and much more likely they’ll get arrested, go to jail, or even die in the hands of police. Many studies suggest that implicit bias, not white supremacist intentions on the part of individuals, plays a role at nearly every stage.
While the lifelong impact of school disciplinary policies can affect all students, black ones are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, according to a 2012 report from the Department of Education. Astudy published in the January American Sociological Review found that the damage of high suspension rates goes beyond those pushed out of school, generating “collateral damage, negatively affecting the academic achievement of non-suspended students.”
While these big-picture disparities are well documented, the Stanford study is the first to experimentally suggest that unconscious bias might play a role in classroom discipline, an accumulation of individual decisions that sweep thousands of students out of school and into jail over the course of their lives.
“What we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when black and white students behave in the same manner,” write Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt in their paper, published in April by the journal Psychological Science. (Eberhardt won a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” fellowship for her work on implicit bias.)
It’s a pattern that might provide insight to interpersonal bias in criminal justice. “Just as escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by Black students might feed racial disparities in disciplinary practices in K–12 schooling, so too might escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by black suspects feed racial disparities in the criminal-justice system,” they write.
In the first experiment, researchers screened teachers for explicit racial bias, among other factors. They then showed a racially diverse group of 57 female teachers a picture of a middle school and asked them to imagine themselves working there. The teachers then viewed a school record — based on an actual one — of a student who misbehaved twice.
Then came the experimental trick: The students were identified with either stereotypically black names (Darnell or Deshawn) or white ones (Greg or Jake). After reviewing each infraction, the researchers asked:
- How severe was the student’s misbehavior?
- To what extent is the student hindering you from maintaining order in your class?
- How irritated do you feel by the student?
- How severely should the student be disciplined?
- Would you call the student a troublemaker?
Read more: Huffington Post