Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Combating Racial Bias in the Classroom

With the start of the academic year, SPARQ researchers are providing important insights about combating racial bias in schools.

Talking about race  

Recent state laws seek to limit conversations about race in classrooms. In Scientific American, SPARQ Research Scientist Camilla Mutoni Griffiths and Stanford PhD candidate Nicky Sullivan emphasize the psychological importance of explicitly discussing race in schools. 

Research insight: Without external explanations of disparities between racial groups, such as unequal institutional practices and the spread of racial stereotypes, students tend to view racial disparities as representative of inherent, unchangeable differences between racial groups. They then may come to believe in racial stereotypes. White students may be particularly susceptible to these beliefs, as they are much less likely than Black students to have conversations about race and racism with their parents.

Recommendation: Griffiths and Sullivan emphasize that having in-depth, honest conversations about race in the classroom is a critical way to fight stereotypes and prevent the spread of bias. SPARQ’s RaceWorks toolkit is also an important resource for educators that helps explain why race is not an unchangeable or biological trait, but rather a set of actions that people “do” in relation to cultural ideas and institutions.  

Promoting healthy interracial friendships 

SPARQ Co-Director Jennifer Eberhardt, SPARQ Faculty Affiliate Carol Dweck, Kristin Pauker, and Evan Apfelbaum, found in a study, which Pauker and Apfelbaum wrote about in Time, that young children demonstrate a tendency to self-segregate in school. 

Research insight: When children view prejudice as a fixed trait, rather than as a set of beliefs that can be changed, some may fear that others will view them as prejudiced, while others may fear that they will be mistreated by a prejudiced person. 

Recommendation: According to Eberhardt, Dweck, Pauker, and Apfelbaum, teaching students that a person’s beliefs and attitudes can be changed may lead to an increase in cross-race classroom encounters. Viewing prejudice as malleable promotes a willingness to learn and ultimately, positive relationships across racial lines. 

Racial inequality in school discipline

In an article about the disproportionate discipline of Black girls with disabilities, American Progress cited a 2015 study by Eberhardt and UC Berkeley professor Jason Okonofua demonstrating how racial bias can operate when teachers view student behavior.

Research insight: In the case of repeated infractions, Eberhardt and Okonofua found that teachers tend to view these infractions as part of a pattern of behavior for Black, but not white, students. Consequently, they are more likely to recommend harsher punishment for Black vs. white students.

Recommendation: Eberhardt and Okonofua recommend further research exploring the impact of racial stereotypes on school discipline; Okonofua and colleagues have also studied ways to disrupt disparities in discipline. Additionally, Eberhardt and Okonofua recommend looking at how similar patterns might unfold in the criminal justice system, where police officers may treat Black vs. white repeat offenders more harshly.