Understanding... Structural Racism
in U.S. Public Education
If you want a downloadable PDF of this document, please enter your email and we'll send it directly to your inbox.
Written by: Laura Han, Hannah Seabright, Emily Chen
Edited by: Emily Chen, Jenny Dorsey
Last Updated: 5.18.22
This piece is a free resource brought to you by our regular donors. If you've learned something from our work, please consider supporting us financially so we can continue bringing free educational content to everyone. You can join our community via Patreon or send us a one-time donation via GiveLively.
Table of Contents
An overview of racism in the public education system from the 1800s to present day
Examining a key measure of racial educational equality and the unequal impact that COVID-19 has had on students of color
Understanding the systemic inequities within public education that have contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline
Discussing the evolution of affirmative action policies and long-lasting impact of such policies on students of color
Ways to combat systemic racism in education, within and outside of the education system
Relevant resources to read and learn more about racism in the public education system
The Origins of Systemic Racism in Education
Following the Civil War and emancipation of enslaved African Americans, Congress passed three Constitutional Amendments in the 1860s, known as the Reconstruction Amendments, that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (13th), provided citizenship to those born or naturalized in the U.S. regardless of race (14th), and guaranteed the right of all citizens to vote (15th). The following decade, known as the Reconstruction era (1863 - 1877), was the attempt by the U.S. Government to address the inequities and protect the rights of newly enfranchised African Americans.
However, the 1880s marked the resurgence of white supremacy in the south and the rollback of these advancements; Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, and quasi-renslavement through convict leasing eliminated the gains made by freed people. One of the most infamous Supreme Court rulings that codified state-sanctioned segregation and provided the foundation for institutionalized inequality was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
Following the Civil War, white supremacy movements and Jim Crow laws continued to inhibit the freedom of Black Americans, notably through legalized segregation supported by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896.
Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 finally overturned Plessy's "separate but equal," but gave little instruction on how to implement newly integrated schools and other services.
The lack of clarity around how integration should be carried out led to covert racism and segregation, particularly noticeable in where schools were located and how they were resourced.
The majority opinion effectively declared “separate but equal” public facilities, such as schools and public transportation, as constitutional and not in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While these Black-only schools may have been denoted as “equal,” in reality they did not receive nearly the same amount of funds as white-only schools and lacked adequate resources and facilities for Black children. Teachers at Black schools were paid substantially less and resources at Black schools were often discarded by nearby white schools. In South Carolina, the government spent 3x as much on white schools than Black schools and 100x more on the transportation of white children than Black children to schools.
Less widely known is the de facto segregation of Mexican Americans in the 1920s that eventually culminated in Mendez v. Westminster (1946) which declared segregation of Mexican Americans unconstitutional. As Mexican laborers migrated to California, communities began to enforce their own segregation. Public facilities such as restaurants posted signs such as “No dogs or Mexicans” while public swimming pools had “Mexican Mondays” whereupon the pool was completely drained and refilled before white residents would use it. By the 1840s, 80% of Mexican Americans were in “Mexican” schools for their supposed “benefit” (the government claimed putting them in their own school would help them). Eventually, Mexican Americans fought back, organizing boycotts and suing schools over segregation. This led to Mendez v. Westminster (1946) and the landmark ruling that segregation of Mexican Americans was in violation of the equal protection clause in the 14th amendment; the arguments in Mendez v. Westminster served as the basis for Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began by fighting for racial equality through the creation of legislation that would protect African Americans from racial discriminatory laws. In the 1930s, they turned their focus to education, eventually culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling that finally overturned formal racial segregation in public schools. Regarded as one of the most consequential legal judgments, Brown v. Board of Education actually consisted of five different cases — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.), Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel — each centering around the constitutionality of school segregation.
"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
- Brown v. Board of Education
However, the Supreme Court did not provide any guidelines on the implementation of this decision until the following year and it would take many more years for all public schools to be desegregated with white southerners complaining of changes to their “way of life”. The Little Rock Nine illustrates the educational apartheid and intense resistance that white southerners had towards integration: in 1957, as nine Black students prepared to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas for the first time, they faced the national guard and a mob of hostile white people.
Image Source: History.com
In contrast to the loud and disruptive resistance to integration, southern states also enacted covert methods of segregation. For example, by using home address to determine school placement, Black children in redlined neighborhoods were barred from accessing the same education as their white peers. Even though redlining was outlawed in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act, previously redlined neighborhoods still feel the repercussions, often receiving less taxpayer funding for education as a result of lower property values. Today, two out of every three minority students attend city schools that are predominantly minority and funded well below their suburban counterparts, and there are state-by-state restrictions on open enrollment at public schools (the ability to transfer to another school within or outside of your district).
In 2018, school districts located in neighborhoods with the highest rates of poverty received an average of $1,000 - or 7% less — in funding per student than those in the wealthiest zip codes. In some states, the difference in state and local funding was up to 22%. Similarly, school districts with the largest population of Black, Latinx, or Indigenous students received an average of $1,800 or 13% less in funding per student than those serving the fewest students of color. For a school district with 5,000 students, this difference adds up to a significant funding gap of $9 million per year.
Furthermore, governmental policies like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can make schools more likely to push out low-performing students in order to meet national testing standards, which only serves to compound existing problems while overlooking the systemic roots that generate income, neighborhood, and education discrimination.
While Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark decision that set the stage for the civil rights movement, it was ultimately unsuccessful in the desegregation of schools. Black children are still racially and socioeconomically isolated and the racial achievement gap between Black and white students has only widened. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and the roots of systemic racism in the U.S. education system are evident today in the increased criminalization and isolation of marginalized students, most notably Black and Brown students.
Education Achievement Gap
Socioeconomic status and housing access are notable contributors to the Education Achievement Gap, both of which are heavily related to race.
Implicit bias and racism held by teachers, academic institutions, and standardized testing methods continue to drive this disparity.
A key measure of racial educational equality, the education achievement gap is defined as the "difference in academic outcomes between historically advantaged and disadvantaged groups", most often discussed in the context of standardized test scores between Black, Hispanic, and white students. While the achievement gap has declined since the 1970s, it remains significant today. Based on standardized test scores, white students are roughly two years ahead of Black and Hispanic students in terms of education. This varies greatly across city and state — Atlanta has the largest achievement gap with white students testing almost five years ahead of Black students. Nearly all the nation’s largest school districts have large achievement gaps where the scores of Black students fall far below the national average. In no large school district are Black students on par with or performing moderately as well as white students.
Despite public recognition of the achievement gap, education reform has been slow to tackle the achievement gap across races, in part due to ignorance around what has led to and continues to enforce the achievement gap today. One common assumption is that low average test scores are due to the school’s programming & offerings; because white students tend to live in wealthier communities, they have access to “better” schools with more resources. However, the data does not support this argument. If schools are primarily to blame for the gap, then one would expect the gap to start much smaller and grow over the years of education. In fact, the opposite is seen; these performance gaps are already large starting in Kindergarten and grow little during the school years, suggesting that children’s early experiences shape academic capacities. Thus, it is important to think of the academic gap as representative of educational opportunities a child has received. The following section will examine the factors that contribute to the education achievement gap.
Examining the Factors Behind the Education Achievement Gap
Socioeconomic status has been closely linked to educational outcomes and the education achievement gap. This is particularly important in the U.S. where racial differences in socioeconomic status are evident, especially when it comes to income, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and educational attainment. Hispanic and Black families, on average, have lower levels of education and income and are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, typically defined as neighborhoods where 20 - 40% of residents fall under the poverty line. Higher-income families have a greater ability to afford childcare, preschool, and other early education opportunities that provide experiences for children to develop socioemotional and academic capabilities.
Education access is also strongly tied to housing policy, which has historically denied people of color the opportunity to leave low-income neighborhoods through generations of residential segregation shaped by both institutional and interpersonal racism (e.g., redlining, Jim Crow laws, discriminatory mortgage rates). State-sanctioned housing segregation may have officially ended in 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act, but it persists today through covert social and political means. This legacy of housing segregation is a key driver of racial differences in socioeconomic status: primarily Black neighborhoods in segregated metropolitan areas face higher levels of unemployment, poverty, and crime as well as racial income and healthcare inequality arising from more limited access to labor and education opportunities, in addition to fewer and lower quality government resources and services.
Simply put, school reform alone will not close the achievement gap and lead to equitable educational opportunities and outcomes for students of color. As Richard Rothstein explains in The Color of Law, the supposedly “de facto” nature of residential segregation (segregation that exists due to private activity) contributes to the overall public’s presumption that the gap arises through a combination of personal behaviors, economic circumstance, demographic trends, and private discrimination. In reality, history demonstrates the “de jure” nature of segregation, in which segregation arises from racially motivated government policy designed to enforce segregation between Black and white Americans. Hence, viable solutions for closing the achievement gap must also address residential and school segregation — the desegregation of schools cannot be achieved without desegregation of low-income neighborhoods. As evidenced in the data, more segregated schools have larger achievement gaps and no moderately or highly segregated school has a small achievement gap.
Social and economic disparities also manifest in other forms that further limit education outcomes. Lower-income children often have less access to preventative healthcare, leading to more absences from school; need to work to support their family, with less time that can be devoted to school; may move and switch schools more frequently; and have fewer family resources that offer support for higher-education opportunities.
This assumption that unequal achievement is due to individual reasons vs. systemic reasons was evident in a 2016 study where nearly half (44%) of survey respondents responded "None" to the question of "How much of the difference in test scores between white students and Black students can be explained by discrimination against Blacks or injustices in society?" Structural racism is so deeply embedded into our society and communities that survey respondents were more likely to attribute the difference in test scores to parenting and student motivation than to any inequities that arose from past public policies.
A driving force behind these responses is the implicit racial bias ingrained in our education system, especially among educators. Implicit racial bias can present as having certain expectations for student behavior and academic performance based on race, which can then lead to differences in disciplinary measures. A study published in Educational Researcher found that overall, teachers hold a pro-white/anti-Black implicit bias. While this is less prevalent in teachers of color, more than 80% of teachers are white. Additionally, in areas with greater pro-white/anti-Black implicit bias among teachers, there were larger racial disparities in suspensions and test scores. While implicit bias training has been implemented to combat implicit biases in education, evidence has shown little overall impact.
Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on the Education Achievement Gap
COVID-19 could have a significant and long-lasting impact on the educational disparities faced by white students and students of color. Black and Hispanic students suffer most from remote learning given less conducive home learning environments (including lack of access to high-speed internet). Data from Curriculum Associates finds only 60% of low-income students are regularly logging online in comparison to 90% of high-income students. A June 2020 study by McKinsey suggests that given these statistics, the education achievement gap may grow an additional 15 to 20%. High school dropout rates are also estimated to increase 2 to 9% given the disruption to after-school support. Academic motivation and achievement are also likely to be impacted by harder to quantify factors such as greater social anxiety and isolation.
The exacerbation of educational outcomes due to COVID-19 is also likely to have long-lasting economic implications. The average K-12 student in the U.S. is estimated to lose between $61,000 and $82,000 in lifetime earnings solely due to COVID-19 related learning losses. The impact on earnings is only more pronounced for Black and Hispanic Americans — white students are estimated to earn 1.6% less yearly versus a 3.3% reduction for Black students and 3.0% reduction for Hispanic students. The aggregate impact on annual earnings across all K-12 students is estimated to be $110 billion.
There are several possible interventions to mitigate the long-term impact of COVID-19 on education including:
Sharing best practices for remote teaching among educators, including best practices for hybrid learning.
Evaluating/identifying resources for the most vulnerable students and ensuring that all students have the necessary equipment and resources for learning.
Finding ways to encourage students to engage in ongoing learning, especially over longer breaks, e.g., summer break.
Helping parents create a safe and effective learning environment at home, including reducing distractions such as electronic devices, designating space for learning, and creating a routine.
Providing social and mental health services to cope with anxiety and stress of remote learning and the pandemic. Free and confidential mental health resources recommended by the CDC can be found here. Additionally, Supportiv is a free, 24/7, anonymous online peer support network chat group; Help When You Need It is an online directory to find local listings of services (both private and public) such as domestic violence assistance, mental health services and more.
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the consistent stream of children (disproportionately students of color, especially Black boys) that move from public schools into the prison system. Often this process starts with disciplinary action due to subjective behavioral issues such as “disrespect”, which is influenced by negative stereotypes such as Black youth being more “adult” than their peers and Black boys being dangerous. (White students are more likely to be disciplined for recordable offenses such as vandalism.) As a result, Black students represent 31% of school-related arrests and are 3x more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers. This process starts incredibly young: 50% of suspensions in preschool are Black children despite a report finding that Black students are misbehaving no more than other students.
In recent years schools have begun relying more heavily on police presence to enforce codes of conduct, rather than addressing systemic issues that may be leading to students to act out at school.
Instead of offering these youth the support to succeed in school, such as additional tutoring or counseling services, or working to fix larger, systemic issues they may be facing in their lives, these youth are punished with zero-tolerance policies that greatly increase the likelihood of them either entering a juvenile detention system or dropping out of school altogether. As Dani McClain writes in The Atlantic from her interviews with Jessica Black, a mother of two Black teenagers:
"Behaviors that many Black parents might consider annoying but developmentally appropriate, such as an ill-timed joke or talking back to an adult, are treated by school staff as cause for suspension. From there, students are pushed out of classrooms, lose learning time, and can end up in the school-to-prison pipeline."
Many factors have also exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline. The Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 prompted widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies that resulted in hefty punishments — such as a year-long, out-of-school suspension — for any students caught with a “weapon” at school. (These policies were widely criticized as “weapon” was so loosely defined students could be suspended for making guns with their fingers.) This coincided with schools adopting their own version of the broken windows theory of policing, or utilizing harsh crackdowns on minor infractions believing it would make schools feel safer and discourage students from committing larger offenses.
In the late 1990s, schools also began relying more heavily on police presence, known as School Resource Officers (SROs), to supposedly protect students from events like the Columbine school shooting in 1998. Over time however, these SROs began to police students, oftentimes arresting students for minor, non-violent offenses. Compared to schools without SROs, schools with SROs had five times more arrests due to "disorderly conduct". When SROs make these arrests, students are much more likely to be turned over to the juvenile justice system and given a juvenile record.
Disparities in resources for public schools have also increased school reliance on these above systems of punishment. Neighborhoods that receive less funding are more likely to have inadequate resources in the form of overcrowded classrooms and a lack of qualified teachers and additional resources such as special education services or counselors, contributing to higher dropout rates. They are also more likely to rely on SROs for discipline due to the lack of resources to meet individual student needs. A student, Edward Ward described his experience at a high-poverty, majority-Black school during a congressional hearing regarding the school-to-prison pipeline:
"From the moment we stepped through the doors in the morning, we were faced with metal detectors, X-ray machines, and uniformed security. Many young people … [felt] unwelcome and under siege."
Schools where students of colors made up more than half of the student population were found to use more strict surveillance practices in addition to SROs — including security cameras, random sweeps, metal detectors, and locked gates — two to 18 times greater than schools where students of color made up 20% or less of the student population. The heavy-handed security measures have severe implications in the long-lasting educational and sociological harm they can cause to students of color.
The state of constant surveillance has been noted to create an environment where these students understand and internalize that the school system sees them as a potential threat, criminal, and less than.
There have been several school-led reforms proposed that center around promoting safe learning environments through restorative justice, positive behavioral interventions, social and emotional learning, and faculty training (e.g., implicit bias training). At the federal level, suggestions include taking federal and state dollars currently invested in school security measures and shifting them to fund alternative approaches, mandating annual implicit bias training, and making public all information gathered on school security measures.
Affirmative action initiatives most commonly refer to two arenas: education and employment. Affirmative action laws were born out of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s with the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The phrase was suggested by a Black lawyer named Hobart Taylor Jr. when drafting this executive order under Kennedy. Alongside other executive orders passed by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, these orders encouraged government contractors and firms to end racial discrimination by hiring marginalized individuals. Furthermore, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if an employer was intentionally discriminatory in their hiring practices, affirmative action could be mandated as a “remedy." In 1969, affirmative action was mandated in government employment.
Soon after, affirmative action policies were voluntarily adopted by higher education institutions to increase representation of historically excluded and underrepresented minorities. Universities that are recipients of federal funds must document their affirmative action processes and efforts; those that have discriminated against prospective students must take affirmative action as a “remedy”. This is not to say that all higher education uses affirmative action. In fact, since 1996, ten states have banned affirmative action in college admissions: California, Texas (reversed in 2003), Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Idaho (most recently in 2020). This 2013 study shows a decrease of 23% in students of color at top public colleges after an affirmative action ban took place.
As pointed out by Shirley J. Wilcher, the executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity, the “key word in affirmative action is ‘action’”. This highlights the initiative to not only ban or denounce past discrimination, but also to actively prevent future discrimination by having “the government (or employers) take an active role in treating employees fairly”.
Since then, affirmative action has become a highly debated topic. With institutions admitting more students of color, white students began suing institutions for being victims of "reverse discrimination" as early as 1971. Despite 60% of Americans being in support of affirmative action policies, 70% believe that admissions should solely be based on merit without racial or ethnic consideration. Even now, institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton University are currently being (or have been) investigated or sued over race related policies such as affirmative action.
While affirmative action has been successful in increasing diversity among college campuses — with white students only making up 57% of U.S. college students in 2016 in comparison to over 80% in 1976 — it is far from able to “fix” centuries-old issues of unequal access and opportunity. For example, even with affirmative action policies the Harvard 2023 class is still over 40% white, far more than any other racial demographic. The practice of legacy admissions in higher education only exacerbates this issue; at Harvard, children of alumni are 6x more likely to be admitted and legacy students compose more than 30% of each incoming class.
Once students have entered post-secondary education, the lingering effects of systemic racism within education still persist. Wealth disparities that exist among marginalized families lead to higher debt burden and lower rates of graduation for marginalized individuals. After graduation, implicit racial bias is also alive and well in the workforce, from job descriptions and resume screening to the actual interview and evaluation process. According to research, Black and Asian candidates are twice as likely to receive a job interview by “whitening” their resumes and removing references to their race than when they do not mask their race. Firms that emphasize diversity through statements like “equal opportunity employer” were found to be just as likely to discriminate on the basis of race as firms without such statements.
Tackling Systemic Racism in Education
1. Get involved.
Even if you are not a parent or legal guardian, you can still attend local school board meetings to discuss the role of law enforcement or zero-tolerance policies as well as advocate for an anti-racist curriculum in your school district. A school board is most often composed of elected officials who provide oversight of a school district, so make sure to research and vote for those who you would like to see on a school board. If you are a parent or legal guardian, you can also attend PTA meetings to better understand the policies at your school, and advocate for anti-bias training and restorative justice programs (see more below).
2. Support organizations and campaigns combatting structural racism in education and housing.
There are organizations doing great work to advance racial justice and combat systemic racism in education including the Center for Racial Justice.
3. Challenge your own biases and understanding of inequities in education.
When you think of students who are “badly behaved” in school, who do you imagine? What about the school valedictorian? Why do you think some students test better than others on standardized tests? Examine how public policy and media have shaped our understanding of differences in educational opportunity and outcomes.
4. Advocate for anti-bias training for students and professionals within the education system.
While training cannot solve the unequal ways in which we perceive and judge others, it’s important that everyone within the education system is aware so that all can take steps towards questioning their implicit biases and how it may be reflected in their actions — remember, over 80% of teachers are white.
5. Advocate for restorative justice programs in schools as an alternative to strict disciplinary measures.
Restorative justice focuses on resolving conflict through mediation and acknowledgment without punishment, e.g., harsh zero tolerance policies. It is a holistic approach to behavior and when implemented well, shifts the focus from the individual to the community in order to deal with the root causes of behavior. Read more about restorative justice programs here.
More Primers You May Enjoy
Never miss a new piece
Subscribe for the latest information on our new content, our regular newsletters & more!