Poor Schooling is an important part of structural racism, because it ensures that communities of color will be less able to compete in the U.S. economy, and because it promotes ignorance of U.S. racial histories and problems. Some of the problems that make up poor schooling include under-funding of schools that serve communities of color, racial discrimination and harassment of students of color, racist curriculum (i.e. textbooks, lessons, and materials), and poor preparation for college education and career opportunities. Poor schooling can also involve punitive policies and disciplinary practices, that make up the School to Prison Pipeline.
In many public school systems in the United States, schools districts are created to serve nearby neighborhoods. Schools get the money they need to operate in a few ways: from state and federal governments, and through local city and county governments. In some states, and many cities and counties, money for school districts is divided based on the tax payments made by parents in the local neighborhoods. In other words, schools that serve wealthier communities get more money to operate, while schools that mainly serve poor and working class children and youth get less funding. Although all children are supposed to have the right to a free, public education in the U.S., in practice, the quality of education and the materials and money schools get, are very different.
Below we list a breakdown of some of the overlapping problems that contribute to inequality in schools, and in school funding.
•Housing and Family Income are Affected by Race and Racism–Structural Racism creates both Housing Segregation and Wealth Disparities. Read more about each problem.
•School Districts Reflect Inequalities in Housing and Family Income–Some cities and counties will develop school districts that cluster upper- and middle-class neighborhoods together, even if they do not share borders, and do the same with low-income neighborhoods. In addition, poor communities of color are often “ghettoized”, meaning that poor neighborhoods are in different parts of cities and towns than wealthier ones. Income tax based plans for funding school systems help to ensure that the most schooling materials, resources, and funding for staff is concentrated in wealthier areas, and doesn’t reach students from poor and working class students.
•School Districts With Weak Funding Give Less to Students–Underfunded schools suffer from multiple problems. These include: poor student to teacher ratio, limited or no access to computers, learning aids, and materials, out-of-date or unusable textbooks, safety problems, unsafe buildings and grounds, lack of access to arts programs, and limited resources for extracurricular activities, like clubs and sports.
•With Less Access to Strong K-12 Education, Students in Poverty are Likely to Stay Poor–
The quality of education determines many things that affect children and youth later in life. Poor resources for K-12 education affect student performance on Standardized Testing, can damage self-esteem, increase vulnerability to school violence, and result in students learning less. In addition, they help to determine later life chances. Poorly funded schools graduate fewer students, send fewer students to four-year colleges, have more former students who end up incarcerated via the School to Prison Pipeline and graduate fewer students who end up in professional or well-paying jobs. In other words, students who do not receive well-funded education are less likely to be able to compete in the U.S. economy, and those who start families of their own will face the challenge of the same barriers to education and work for their children, continuing the cycle.
Much of the research and advocacy focused on youth of color either does not pay attention to differences based on gender, or only gives attention to African-American and Latino boys. As a result, a number of problems specifically affecting girls slip beneath the radar. Below are four areas where intersecting race and gender discrimination affect education.
The Combination of Race and Gender Tracking–Like boys of color, girls of color are likely to be tracked into less advanced classes, and more likely to be placed in special education programs, even if they do not have actual disabilities. Similarly, like white girls, girls of color are less likely to be encouraged to succeed in math and science disciplines, as compared to either white boys, or boys of color. However, the consequence of both race and gender marginalization creates different effects, as compared to all other racial and gender groups (white girls, boys of color, white boys). Girls of color have the weakest life-time earning potential. Women of color, particularly immigrant women of color, African-Americans, Latinas, and Native women, are most likely to live in poverty as adults, and are often likely to be “last hired, first fired”, in a variety of workplaces.
Exclusion from Crisis Intervention ProgramsMany of the programs set up to deal with racism and inequality in education are specifically resources for African-American and Latino boys. Similarly, programs that deal with the vulnerability of girls and education are not always sensitive to or dealing with race and racism. As a consequence, girls of color are more likely to slip through the cracks, in areas like after school programming, mentoring programs, scholarships and special events, as well as in crisis counseling.
Stereotypes and Stigma–Although less attention is paid to girls of color in areas that are meant to solve problems based on race and gender, girls of color still face intense stigma and negative stereotypes, for problems like teenage pregnancy, for example. Many people in the U.S. do not realize that in majority of U.S. teen pregnancies, the father is not another teenager, but an adult man older than 25 years of age, who is engaging in statutory rape or sexual abuse. Girls of color are also more likely to experience rape than any other group , and therefore more likely to deal with pregnancy as a result of rape. Although girls of color are subject to intense rates of sexual exploitation and abuse, they are also stereotyped as being promiscuous or “slutty” or responsible for social problems to do with youth having sex. As compared to white girls, African-American, Latino and Native girls are also more likely to be perceived as violent, disruptive, or “problem students”.
What is special education, and is it always segregated?
“Special education” refers to specific programs for students with disabilities. Not all special education programs are “segregated”; that is, not all special education programs involve separating students with disabilities from other students. However, segregated special education is common in the U.S. Since the legal decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), it has been against the law in the U.S. for schools to segregate students into different classes or resources, based on race. In 1975, after the passage of “Education for All Handicapped Children Act”, later followed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act – IDEIA), “special education” became the term for disability-specific educational programs, provided for under federal law. Within disability rights movements and among families of children with disabilities, the question of whether children with disabilities learn and are socialized better in disability-specific segregated classrooms, or when integrated into regular classrooms remains an area of debate.
Who gets placed in special education?
Researchers and advocates have documented an ongoing problem in schools’ use of special education, since the 1970s. Some schools with segregated special education programs place youth of color, particularly African-American, Latino, and Native children and youth, in special education at higher rates than white children and youth, and at higher rates than disabilities are actually occurring. The two most common diagnoses (medical labels) given to youth of color in special education are “cognitive impairment”, and “emotional disturbance”. Actual cognitive impairments, or intellectual/neurological disabilities (previously known as “mental retardation”), occur in approximately 1.2% of children , and some cases are relatively mild enough to not require special education. Nevertheless, 2.54% of African-American youth in schools are placed in special education specifically based on the diagnosis of cognitive impairment, at more than twice the rate of white children, and five times the rate of Asian-American children.
Cognitive impairment and stereotypes of intelligence
The majority of school children, including youth of color, are not in special education programs, generally are for cognitive impairment, but African-Americans make up 33% of those children who are in special education based on the diagnosis of cognitive impairment, though only making up 17% of school children. Advocates and researchers indicate that while some disabilities do occur at higher rates among youth of color, because they are caused by poverty (e.g. poor medical care for mothers during pregnancy, or malnutrition), the rates of African-American children in special education based on the diagnosis of intellectual disability are still too high to match any medical reality. That is, the stereotype that African-Americans, and also Latino and Native youth, are not intelligent (as compared to whites and Asians), is likely contributing to the this mis-diagnosis.
Emotional disturbance and stereotypes of “problem children”
The diagnosis of “emotional disturbance” also appears at higher rates for African-American, Latino, and Native youth. African-American youth, again, show up at the highest rates, making up 28% of youth in special education with this diagnosis, though only 17% of school children. Children who are diagnosed with “emotional disturbance” are likely to be those perceived by teachers as being defiant or having attitude problems. Researchers have noted that in many instances, diagnosis is taking place in schools with primarily white teachers. A major concern is that teachers and school administrators and counselors may – consciously or unconsciously – believe stereotypes about people of color as criminals, or youth of color as “bad kids”. In addition, the diagnosis of “emotional disturbance” often may miss that when youth of color are in fact unhappy, alienated, or challenging something in their school environment, they may be reacting to problems of race discrimination, harassment, or negative treatment by teachers and staff. Schools may be too quick to label a child as “emotionally disturbed”, and too slow to consider what about the classroom or school environment is creating emotional problems for youth of color. The disability label lets schools off the hook for solving the problem of racial inequality in education.
Why is placement in special education a problem?
Some children, across all racial groups, genuinely have disabilities which require special education, and some, though not all, may benefit from a separate environment. So the existence of special education is not a problem by itself. There are two reasons why special education becomes a problem of structural racism:
(1) Special education classrooms are sometimes under-staffed, neglected, or poorly organized. In these instances, tracking of youth of color into special education can become a form of “re-segregation”, in schools that are not officially allowed to segregate by race. That is, special education can be used to get around the legal decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which is supposed to prevent schools from segregating students by race, and from giving inferior education to youth of color. Disability becomes a “proxy” or substitute for race, meaning that segregation by race occurs under the cover of special education.
(2) Even where special education programs are not poorly run or inferior in themselves, mis-diagnosis reinforces harmful racial stereotypes, specifically that youth of color are not as smart, and are “problem” or “sick” children, as compared to white children. It is important to confront these stereotypes generally relative to disability – having a disability should not be a reason for “stigma” (negative stereotypes) or shame. When schools use special education as a form of race discrimination, they are tapping into negative stereotypes about both race and disability. “Ableism”, or discrimination and oppression based on disability, promotes the idea that children with disabilities are a problem for schools, and less valuable students. In turn, racism promotes the idea that by having actual or supposed disabilities at higher rates, youth of color are a problem, and are less valuable students. All of these stereotypes can hurt the self-esteem of children who face the stereotypes, and may contribute to bullying, harassment or other problems in school.
What can be done?
Steps for confronting the problem of racism in special education include:
• Advocates for children of color need to be involved in schools. Parents with more race and class privilege are often better positioned to take time away from work or other activities to be involved in discussion with schools, and to threaten or take legal action if schools violate the rights of children. Schools are also sometimes less respectful to parents of color, based on racial stereotypes about bad parents, or problem families. If parents and communities challenge these problems together, there is less chance that children of color, or their parents, will be isolated, and mistreated.
• The rights of children with disabilities need to be protected. When special education operates as a form of re-segregation, it is often because special education is inferior education, particularly in poorly funded schools. Where the quality of special education programs is high, it takes away the option for schools to use special education as a kind of “dumping ground” for under-valued students of color. And youth of color who do actually need special education programs are no longer denied their educational rights!
• Monitor special education placement rates in schools. Concerned communities and parents can insist on access to rates of placement by race and disability, in special education. It is important to insist on review of school procedures, where there are major differences by race. While it may be true that some youth of color do have higher rates of some disabilities – particularly those that are more likely to occur due to racism or poverty – the diagnoses of cognitive impairment or emotional disturbance should be watched particularly closely.