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For Black Students, Stereotyping Starts Early

In a new study, prospective teachers were more likely to judge behavior as hostile if the child was African American.

Racial bias is abhorrent in any form, but it's particularly problematic for teachers. Instructors who view kids through a racial lens—even unconsciously—are more likely to tag children of certain ethnicities as troublemakers, which can have negative long-term ramifications.

small-scale study featuring 40 prospective educators found striking evidence of just such bias.

"Black students experience more suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary actions than white students, even for exactly the same behavior," lead author Amy Halberstadt, a North Carolina State University psychologist, said in announcing the results. In part, this reflects the fact that "the same behavior may be interpreted differently depending on the race of the child."

For the study, published in the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology, participants—all undergraduates who were planning to pursue a career as a kindergarten-through-12th-grade teacher—took part in two experiments. In the first, they looked at still photos of actors making a variety of facial expressions, which ranged from very subtle to extremely obvious. The researchers recorded whether participants correctly identified the emotion being expressed, and noted when they incorrectly chose "anger" when the actor was actually expressing sadness, surprise, or some other feeling.

The students "were less accurate at recognizing emotional facial expressions posed by adult black faces than adult white faces," the researchers write. They also "mislabeled non-angry facial expression as angry for black faces more so than for white faces."

The effect of race was not subtle. "Black adult faces were 4.12 times more likely to be incorrectly labeled as angry than white adult faces," they write. Interestingly, "anger bias for white males was almost nonexistent."

The second experiment reflected a situation they would be likely to face in the classroom. They looked at four short videos of elementary-school age children interacting in what could be seen as hostile ways. These included a boy "who seems to intentionally step on another child's homework with a muddy footprint while running by," and a boy "putting another child's homework in the trashcan while cleaning up at the end of class."

After watching each, the participants rated the hostility of the child who took the action, using a scale of one to five.

"Pre-service teachers attributed more hostility to black boys' behaviors than to those of white boys," the researchers report. "This held true across varying levels of behavior severity."

The results strongly suggest that, just like police officers, teachers need to be taught about implicit racial bias, its potential consequences, and how to recognize it within themselves. It's vital they understand that, sometimes, belligerence is in the eye of the beholder.