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Racism in America's Schools

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Racism in America's Schools. ERIC Digest Series, Number EA 49.

An eight-year-old black girl in South Africa recently told Ted Koppel on Nightline, "White people are better than black people. Whites know more, have more, and get more. I wish I was white but I am not." American children of color do not have to contend with apartheid, but they still do not live in a prejudice-free society.

A quarter century of desegregation has not yet solved the self-deprecation, low levels of educational performance, or overall quality of life for America's people of color. Racism in any measure undermines children's self-esteem and erodes the educational process.

What role can schools play in combatting racism? As children grow up racist, the schools still have a chance to reeducate them. Some exemplary schools are training students to create a climate of antiracist peer pressure. And in a growing number of schools, new curricula promoting racial and ethnic awareness through multicultural education are turning diversity into opportunity.


Racism is a developed set of attitudes that include antagonism based on the supposed superiority of one group or on the supposed inferiority of another group, premised solely on skin color or race. Some authors suggest that racism and white racism may be synonymous. Defining bigotry as a primarily white problem does disservice in two ways. It ignores the fact that racist attitudes can breed in any ethnic group and it undermines the expressed goals of this decade's most promising solution--multicultural education. Celebration of diversity is a better foundation for racial harmony than is class guilt, says Charles Glenn (1989).


Kenneth Clarke (in Mock 1988) details the developmental phases of racial attitudes in children. By age two, a child notices color differences. In the next two to four years, the child begins to identify with his or her own racial group. At that point she forms preference patterns on the basis of the prevailing attitude within the group and not by contact with a racially different group.

Parents are the earliest and most powerful source of racial attitudes (positive or negative), while peers run a close second (Savard and Aragon 1989). By the early grades every child carries at least some stereotyping.

Institutional and cultural prejudices are more subtle because they are embedded in unexamined assumptions and established procedures. The roots of these are multigenerational and can persist even after years of legislative remedies.


In the progressively liberal, mostly white community of Eugene, Oregon, a study (Savard and Aragon) found that racism exists and may be on the increase. The report stressed the frequency of racial jokes and slurs, derogatory racial stereotyping, and (less often) violent acts left unpunished by school authorities.

Augustine Garcia (1989) notes that our inner cities and areas of high density immigration (California, Florida) are experiencing the intimidation and irrational violence of Neo-Nazi skinheads and racial gangs. Children from dysfunctional families are particularly susceptible to peer pressure to adopt a racist posture.

It is not just the condescension and violence exhibited toward minorities that must be taken into account when looking at incidents of racism. Restrictions on minorities' opportunity to succeed are often racially determined. For example, Asian-Americans incur resentment for academic excellence and "overachieving." If racism is explicit at the street level of society, it is often implicit and equally entrenched at the highest levels.





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