Education, in the words of the great 19th century reformer Horace Mann, is “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” At its best, school aims to be a place where all students — regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, race or any other descriptor — are able to enjoy the magic of learning. Equal access to a quality education should be made available to every student to help them grow in their intellect, to perfect the skills they’ll need to join the workforce and be responsible members of society.
The reality is much different. Students of color, particularly Black and Brown students, often face unique barriers in their educational careers, including under-resourced schools and discrimination. Indeed, the legacy and effects of systemic racism in education are pervasive and lead to disparities in achievement between students of color and white students.
Systemic racism refers to the ways racism and racial discrimination are embedded in the structures and policies of society, and in this case, the educational system. Here are a few ways systemic racism impacts education, including disparities in academic achievement, disciplinary action and access to educational resources.
Systemic Racism in Schools
Systemic Racism in Education Statistics
- The achievement and opportunity gap: There is a significant retention gap between Black and white students in reading and mathematics, with Black students scoring lower on average than white students. For example, the average ACT score for Black students in the class of 2021 was 16.3, compared to 21.7, the average score of white students.
- Suspension and expulsion disparities: Studies show that Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, even when they are behaving. While disparities differ across school districts, researchers have found that Black students in Maryland were removed from school at twice the rate than their white peers. Suspensions can lead students of color to fall behind academically, and also contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, where students are pushed directly out of the educational system into the legal system.
- Teacher bias: Research has shown that teachers are more likely to have lower expectations for Black students and less likely to view them as smart or capable compared to white students. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that when a white and Black teacher evaluate the same Black student, the white teacher is 30% less likely to predict that student will complete a four-year college degree.
- Funding disparities: Schools serving predominantly Black and Latinx students receive less funding than schools serving predominantly white students. Research by EdBuild found that school districts with majority students of color receive $23 billion less in funding than predominantly white school districts.
- Lack of teacher diversity: Research has shown that teachers of color significantly improve the performance of students of color, even increasing students of color’s likelihood to attend college. Yet the teaching profession lacks racial diversity, with Black men accounting for just 2% of public school teachers, according to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.
How Does Systemic Racism Affect Education?
- Unequal access to resources and opportunities: Systemic racism can lead to unequal distribution of resources and opportunities in schools. For example, schools in low-socioeconomic status areas with large populations of students of color are often overcrowded, underfunded and lack access to basic resources like books and technological tools. This contributes to lower levels of academic achievement and college readiness for students of color.
- Curriculum bias: Systemic racism can also be present in educational content, such as required reading books or lesson topics. Curriculums that negate the representation of people of color in history and literature perpetuates a white-centric view and harmful stereotypes — both of which are shown to alienate students of color in the classroom and actively harm their ability to learn.
- Stereotype threat: “Stereotype threat,” as defined by psychologist Claude Steele, is the phenomenon where underrepresented groups, when forced to exist in exclusionary and unrepresentative environments, face the risk of conforming to the negative stereotypes of their identified groups. With that in mind, systemic racism can create toxic school environments where students of color face daily microaggressions and discrimination, which in turn can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as lower levels of self-esteem and academic performance.
Examples of Systemic Racism in Education
- Standardized testing bias: Standardized tests are often biased against students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. This can lead to unfair assessments and lower test scores, which can impact students’ future opportunities.
- Gifted and talented identification: Students of color are often placed in lower-level classes, left out of gifted and talented programming tracks. This can lead to fewer opportunities to take advanced-level courses and prepare for college and career opportunities later on.
- Underfunding: Schools located in predominantly minority areas often receive less funding than predominantly white schools. This leads to a lack of critical resources that students need to succeed in school, such as updated books and functioning technology.
History of Systemic Racism in Education
The history of systemic racism in schools can be traced centuries ago, when Black children were barred from receiving textbook instruction like their white peers. After some improvements were made, Black children were educated in dilapidated school structures that were segregated from the schools of white children.
In the decades that followed, the fight against segregation in schools was slow and met with resistance. Many Southern U.S. states attempted to maintain segregation through private education, which allowed families to choose which school their children attended and resulted in de facto segregation — the phenomenon is colloquially referred to as “white flight.” The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to the desegregation of public schools through measures like court-ordered busing that attempted to diversify school districts.
Even today, however, many schools continue to be racially and economically segregated, leading to disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes for students of color. Research has shown that students of color are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources and less experienced teachers. Research also shows that under-resourced schools are less likely to offer advanced classes and extracurricular activities. Resource disparities stemming from segregation can have a lasting impact on a student’s educational success and future opportunities.
Robert F. Smith and Racism in the Education System
Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners (Vista) Robert F. Smith is devoted to extinguishing systemic racism in all its forms, including in the education system. Notably, Smith is Chairman of Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide STEM students from financially-disadvantaged backgrounds with student loan support to help them complete their education.
Key to Student Freedom Initiative is the belief that every student, regardless of background, has the ability to succeed with the right support system and resources. To that end, Student Freedom Initiative provides loan support, as well as mentor services to its cohorts of students. The organization partners with a range of HBCUs, like Hampton University and Tuskegee University, and is supported by companies like Capital One, EAB, Skadden, Walmart and more.
Learn more about Student Freedom Initiative and follow Smith on LinkedIn to learn more about topics that are important to him.