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The Impact of Racial Attitudes and Beliefs in Schools

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“Examining the Racial Attitudes of White Pre-K-12 Educators” by David Quinn and Ashley Stewart in Elementary School Journal, December 2019 (Vol. 120, #2, pp. 272-299),; Quinn can be reached at
“As the racial/ethnic makeup of the U.S. student population becomes increasingly diverse, the teaching force has remained primarily white,” say David Quinn and Ashley Stewart in this Elementary School Journal article. In 2012, 82 percent of public school teachers were non-Hispanic white while 49 percent of students were black and brown. Quinn and Stewart note that many white educators are uncomfortable discussing race in their classrooms, but are increasingly called upon to do so because race has been a hot topic in recent years, and incidents of racial harassment in schools have spiked since 2016. “Students are coming to school with issues on their minds,” say Quinn and Stewart, “such as the empowerment of white supremacists, disproportionate use of police force, and the president’s denigration of immigrants of color. Teachers must have the comfort and skill required to address these issues appropriately.”
The researchers analyzed the racial attitudes of white PreK-12 educators and found some reassuring news, including disbelief of some historical racial stereotypes. The study then zeroed in on racial microaggressions as an area where white educators’ underlying beliefs and attitudes can cause problems. Microaggressions have been defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.” Three examples:
• Stereotyping – A teacher expresses surprise that a black student scored at the Advanced level on a state test. Unconscious biases can also surface with disciplinary infractions and when referring students to advanced or “gifted” classes.
• Racial beliefs – A teacher tells a student who reported a racial slight that he is being overly sensitive, reflecting the teacher’s belief that prejudice and racial discrimination are no longer serious problems in America. Differences in teachers’ and students’ beliefs can also come up in classroom discussions of affirmative action or the distinction between free speech and hate speech.
• Affective orientation – A white teacher doesn’t acknowledge or make eye contact with students of color and the teacher’s body language communicates discomfort. Quinn and Stewart found that, despite progress in expressed attitudes on racial intermarriage and integrated neighborhoods, “white educators express more social distance from minoritized groups and more collective resentment… Comfort levels in cross-racial interactions are detectable, and teachers’ higher levels of comfort and feelings of closeness toward some racial groups over others will likely negatively affect relationships with students, potentially triggering stereotype threat or expectancy effects.”
“Through future research,” the authors conclude, “we must develop a greater understanding of how interventions can raise educators’ awareness of problematic attitudes, how these attitudes affect their students, and how educators can take control of monitoring and improving their attitudes.”

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