Study: Implicit Bias Pervades Classroom Punishments


A study out of Stanford University found that black students endured harsher punishments from teachers of all races compared to students in other racial/ethnic demographics.

A group of female teachers of a variety of ethnicities, who had been pre-screened for explicit racial bias, were given scenarios in which they had to discipline a student. Hypothetical students with stereotypically black names like “Darnell” were given harsher punishments than students with traditionally European names like “Greg.” Both Darnell and Greg misbehaved two days in a row and broke the same rules, but punishment for Darnell on the second day was much harsher than for Greg.

Researchers repeated the study with a larger number of teachers and some that were male, and also asked the teachers whether the student was exhibiting a pattern and whether they might suspend the student in the future. Darnell was significantly more likely to be voted a troublemaker who might have to be expelled later.

The black teachers tended to be just as harsh as the white teachers when passing judgments on students assumed to be black.

In their article published in Psychological Science, Stanford researchers Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt said:

What we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when black and white students behave in the same manner.

Just as escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by Black students might feed racial disparities in disciplinary practices in K-12 schooling, so too might escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by black suspects feed racial disparities in the criminal-justice system.

A study by the Department of Education in 2012 came to similar conclusions, notes The Voice. Black students were 3 times more likely to receive harsher punishments, like expulsion, than white counterparts who committed the same infractions.

Goldie Taylor of the Blue Nation Review points out that students who are suspended or expelled are less likely to finish high school and are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in the future, meaning that more severe punishments for black students can have serious and far-reaching effects.

According to Taylor Gordon of the Atlanta Blackstar, Okonofua stated:

I think that it attests to the pervasiveness of stereotype effects. Research has demonstrated that exposure to media influences the stereotypical association we all make in our daily lives. Thus, all teachers, regardless of race, are more likely to think a black child, as compared to a white child, is a troublemaker.

Jeremy Adam Smith of Huffington Post notes that this behavior is more likely to come from “implicit bias,” or unconscious partiality, rather than a white supremacist intent to punish black students more harshly. In 2014, Eberhardt won a 2014 MacArthur “genius” fellowship for her work on exactly this concept.

To combat this problem, the researchers recommend (as a first step) thinking of both oneself and one’s students as people who can grow and learn, instead of fixed entities that will “always be troublemakers” or “never contribute to racism.” Okonofua said:

Try not to think of yourself as a fixed character in the same way that you should try not to think of your students as fixed characters. Rather, think of yourself as a growing person who needs to put in effort and practice to contend with the influences of stereotypes.