Who Can Talk About Systemic Inequality in the American Classroom?
What do we think of teachers who discuss systemic racism and social inequality in the American classroom? Does it depend on who the teachers are? Who we are? Both? To answer these questions, our recent work considers the role of American cultural messages, politics, and modern racism.
Meritocracy, Personal Responsibility, and Racial Biases
The American educational system is rife with cultural messages about what some call “the meritocracy.” In meritocracy, success is believed to go to those who work hard enough. On the surface, meritocratic language may seem appealing, outlining a pathway to achieving the American dream. However, when confronted with persistent racial inequalities in educational outcomes, drawing on this language can also invoke the idea that disadvantages among minoritized groups are due to a lack of personal responsibility. The idea that anyone can achieve success if they work hard enough implies the system is fair and ignores the variety of historical contexts that created a decidedly unequal playing field.
Unfortunately, the appeal of personal responsibility language can reveal racial biases, particularly against Black Americans. In research by my co-authors, college students and adults (most of whom identified as White) preferred personal responsibility language aimed at predominantly Black audiences more than the same message aimed at White audiences. This preference seemed to be based on beliefs that Black Americans, more so than other minoritized groups, see the world as less fair than it is in reality and need messages to correct this mistaken view. By comparison, people thought White Americans see the world as fairer than it is in reality, but did not need messages to correct their mistaken view.
Do Preferences for Personal Responsibility Shape the Way We Evaluate Teachers?
How might this preference for personal responsibility, one which seems particularly strong in the American education system, shape our reactions to teachers who discuss systemic inequality? And does it also reveal racial biases against Black Americans? To answer these questions, we asked college students, adults, and parents from across the political spectrum to evaluate the portfolios of two teachers applying for the same job opening at a high school. These portfolios included a smiling picture and educational credentials, which showed the two were equally friendly and qualified for the position. The candidate’s teaching philosophies revealed the only major difference between them. One teacher believed the biggest challenge facing education today was that students do not take enough personal responsibility for their academic achievement, while the other teacher believed the biggest challenge is that education takes place within a broken system that places certain students at a distinct disadvantage on the basis of race and/or income.
As you probably anticipated, there was one more important factor that varied in our study—the race of the teachers. People evaluating the portfolios saw either two White teachers, or two Black teachers.
Black Teachers Who Discuss Systemic Inequality May Pay a Price
Reactions to the White teachers were what might be expected based on political ideology. Conservatives preferred the teacher who advocated for increased personal responsibility, while liberals preferred the teacher who described the challenges of a broken system and demanded shared accountability. When evaluating Black teachers, however, the pattern changed. Conservatives’ already strong preference for teachers advocating for personal responsibility became somewhat stronger, while liberals who would otherwise prefer systemic responsibility messages no longer did, rating the two candidates equally. We saw this same pattern when participants chose which candidate they would hire.
How did our participants explain their hiring decisions? Conservatives felt that both Black and White teachers who discussed systemic problems would be less likely to encourage students to take control of their education than those who discussed personal responsibility. However, liberals felt that only Black teachers with this message would be less likely to encourage personal responsibility. For liberals, it was as if Black teachers needed to “prove” they valued personal responsibility, while assuming White teachers did so regardless of their teaching philosophies. Furthermore, it turned out that liberals chose to hire White teachers because they confronted racism, while they chose Black teachers because they did not bring it up.
This research contributes to ongoing conversations about how personal responsibility language can reflect and reproduce present-day American racism. Our work suggests that Black voices are treated differently than White voices in discussions of educational inequality. White speakers can talk about systemic inequality and racism, and the reception of such a message likely depends on one’s personal political orientation. However, the same message from a Black speaker is more universally disliked, resulting in social and professional costs.
Highlighting biases such as these is an important step in addressing the complex inequalities embedded in America’s past and present. If Black teachers who discuss racism and inequality are potentially kept out of the classroom, this could deprive students of meaningful role models and teachers. This consequence is particularly disturbing when we consider that the presence of Black teachers has beneficial long-term impacts on Black student achievement. We need to work to ensure that qualified Black teachers who discuss racism and inequality are not being unfairly denied jobs. Anyone who advocates for anti-racism in education should take these findings as an opportunity to address the biases that they may hold against Black individuals who are advocating for the very same thing.
For Further Reading
Rivera, G. N., Salter, P. S., Friedman, M., Crist, J., & Schlegel, R. J. (2021). When race trumps political ideology: Black teachers who advocate for social responsibility are penalized by both liberals and conservatives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167221994025
Salter, P., & Adams, G. (2013). Toward a critical race psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 781–793. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12068
Salter, P. S., Hirsch, K. A., Schlegel, R. J., & Thai, L. T. (2016). Who needs individual responsibility? Audience race and message content influence third-party evaluations of political messages. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(1), 29–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615590447
Villegas, A. M., & Irvine, J. J. (2010). Diversifying the teaching force: An examination of major arguments. The Urban Review, 42(3), 175–192. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-010-0150-1
Grace N. Rivera is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi. Her work is guided by an interest in how beliefs people hold about the way the world works influence the way they approach life and the people around them.