Racial Prejudice in the American Education System: Effects of Racism on Black Students’ Lives and Academic Success


By Shreyansh Budhia

While the clashes between white supremacist groups and counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th and August 13th 2017 prove that racism is still a widespread phenomenon in America that haunts racial minorities, it becomes more and more evident that our task as a society to uproot this evil and pull minorities from its grips is not complete. Truth be told, racism in both forms, extrinsic as well as intrinsic, affects minorities of all ethnicities and colors in the United States. Today, educational institutions all across the United States use racism and unfavorably impact the educational performance of black students. Courthouses and law-enforcement agencies are led by well-known white supremacists who rule out in favor of plaintiffs. Black men are unfairly suspected during police encounters, black inmates outnumber white inmates by incomprehensible proportions, and black professionals in the government and corporate world face subtle instances of prejudiced behavior due to their skin color and heritage. All of these examples suggest that racism is a social problem that acts as an obstacle to the socioeconomic development of the African American community.

Discourse on Racial Bias in Education

Racism in America affects students beginning from the very initial levels of preschool and all the way up through college. According to an article titled “Racial disparities persist in US schools, study finds” from CNN, preschool-age black youth are suspended at 3.6 times the rate of white youth, and in kindergarten through 12th grade, black students were 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Out of 1.6 million kids who attend schools with law enforcement officers but no counselors, a majority of these students are African American, Asian, and Latino. Additionally, these students are more likely than white students to have underprepared teachers and are more likely to be enrolled in schools that lack advanced courses like Algebra II, Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus. According to Casey Quinlan’s ThinkProgress article “How Racial Bias Affects the Quality of Black Students’ Education,” a 2014 study from the American Psychological Association showed that “black boys as young as 10 were viewed as less innocent than their white peers and had a greater chance of being mistaken for older children”. Furthermore, this study also suggests that black students are constantly under the watch of law enforcement officers in schools. However, these officers are not trained to distinguish criminal behavior found on the streets from normal teen behavior found in classrooms, and therefore, these students are unfairly charged, and given fines that often go unpaid.

It is not just what happens in schools on an informal level that hurts the chances of success for black students. All across the country, and not just in southern states, even after Brown V. Board of Education that took place more than 60 years ago, there is an objectionable presence of racially segregated schools that make it hard for students to interact with peers of other ethnicities and overcome their racial bias. From impoverished areas in the South to fairly affluent cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, the country has uncountable schools that still have to undergo the desegregation process. For instance, in 2014, the state of California had 31 open desegregation cases. Moreover, beyond the discussion of segregation, black kids in schools, including those in desegregated institutions, have to master curriculums that have no mention of their heritage or history. School curriculums are often tailored in certain ways that skip the horrific past of slavery or modify it to make it appear less gruesome and cruel. For instance, one McGraw-Hill textbook referred to slaves as “workers” who “emigrated” to the United States, devaluing the African American history and misrepresenting the facts. In addition, the educators, who wish to teach students about the history of racial minorities, cannot do so since state exams want students to fixate themselves to the histories and life stories of the white founding fathers.

This white-centered approach to history manifests itself in the realm of academic dress codes where graduation day dresses are specifically designed to submit to predominantly white elite culture that black students cannot identify themselves with. For instance, Casey Quinlan in her ThinkProgress article “How Racial Bias affects the Quality of Black Students’ Education” writes, “This spring, a black student who attended his graduation wearing a Kente cloth, a traditional Ghanaian cloth, was escorted from the ceremony by police, since the cloth violated the rules for the ceremony dress code.” This case is not the only type that comes up in the realm of white dominance in academic dress codes. Black students also find that school dress codes hinder their ability to wear their hair the way most African traditions and customs encourage. These factors – among many others – constitute the black experience in American academia and negatively impact the academic performance of many black students.  

Racial Microaggressions, their causes, and their consequences                   

Racial microaggressions, which can be comments, attitude, or behavior, are “subtle (often unintentional or unconscious) forms of racial discrimination that negatively affect victims’ mental health.” These microaggressions widely came into discussion once various forms of open racial discrimination became outlawed at the local, state, and federal levels. As explained in the article “The Adverse Impact of Racial Microaggressions on College Students’ Self-Esteem” by Kevin L. Nadal, Yinglee Wong, et. al, unlike open forms of discrimination, there is often no legal process that victims of these racial microaggressions can turn to for justice. According to Nadal, Wong and colleagues, who cite a 2007 study by Sue, Capodilupo, and colleagues, racial microaggressions can take three different forms: “microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.” Microassault, as written in Nadal, Wong and colleagues’ text,  “consists of targeting people of known or assumed racial differences with verbal or non-verbal derogatory behavior such as name-calling, avoidant behavior, and purposeful discriminatory actions,” while microinsult refers to “exchanges that communicate disregard for a person’s racial heritage or identity”. Microinvalidation, again explained by Nadal, Wong and colleagues, refers to the phenomenon where the “psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiences of a person of color” are denied or “negate[d]” by another. These three ideas together constitute the term racial microaggression.

Nadal, Wong and colleagues designed a study to assess the combined effect of these three microaggressions on students’ self-esteem to examine whether specific types of microaggressions predict lower self-esteem, and to determine whether individuals from diverse racial groups experience racial microaggressions differently. The researchers recruited a total of 225 current undergraduate students (163 born in the United States) as participants,  87 of which were Latino, 44 African American, 43 white, 19 multiracial, 23 Asian American, and 9 who did not identify with any of these categories. The participants were asked to fill in the Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS), a 45-item scale consisting of statements regarding experiences of racial and ethnic microaggressions. They reported on whether or not they had experienced each of the mentioned microaggressions in the past six months with a 0 indicating no, and a 1 indicating yes. The REMS scale was divided into six different subscales that measured six separate areas of microaggressions: “Assumptions of Inferiority… Second-Class Citizen and Assumption of Criminality… Microinvalidations… Exoticization/Assumptions of Similarity… Environmental Microaggressions… and Workplace/School Microaggressions”.  Later on, the participants were asked to report to the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (SES) – a 10-item scale consisting of statements regarding an individual’s feeling of value and worth towards oneself – on a range from 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (strongly disagree).

As predicted, the results of Nadal, Wong and colleagues’ study indicated that there was a “significant negative correlation” between REMS and SES average scores, which meant that an increase in experiences related to microaggressions meant a decrease in self-esteem. The study also identified that black and Latino participants report more inferiority-related microaggressions than white participants, and black participants specifically report being affected more second-class citizen and criminality microaggressions than white, Asian, and Latino participants. As summed up by the work’s authors, African Americans are more likely to exhibit lower self esteem when they experience microaggressions due to feeling like second-class citizens and microaggressions that stem out of school and work environments.

Nadal, Wong and colleagues suggested “student affairs practitioners” to be aware of the types of microaggressions that their students experience in classrooms and in work environments. According to the authors, since college can be a formative experience, it becomes imperative to teach students various ways that help them deal with microaggressions. The authors also stressed on the importance of discussions about microaggressions, as they felt openly talking about them could be beneficial to afflicted students.

Another research paper titled “Racial Battle Fatigue and the MisEducation of Black Men: Racial Microaggressions, Societal Problems, and Environmental Stress,” by William A. Smith, Man Hung, and Jeremy D. Franklin, designed a study to quantitatively examine the role that these two aforementioned items: “racial microaggressions” and “societal problems” have in predicting black men’s “mundane, extreme, environmental stress (MEES).”

With three questions to answer – “1) Do increasing levels of education negatively impact the effect of societal problems on MEES? 2) Do increasing levels of education negatively impact the effect of racial microaggressions on MEES? 3) Taken together, what is the impact of racial microaggressions and societal problems on MEES as educational attainment increases?” – this research by Smith, Hung, and Franklin examined the racial and stress-related experiences of 661 black men. Of the participants in this study, nearly 90 percent were born in the U.S., more than 80 percent had a high school diploma or above and around 40 percent had a college degree. This study modeled an equation to accomplish its goal and used two variables that caused MEES: racial microaggressions and societal problems. For the racial microaggressions variable, the participants were asked to answer five questions on a scale from 0 to 3, with 0 meaning “never,” and 3 meaning “very often”: “1) You are treated with less respect than other people, 2) People act as if they are afraid of you, 3) People act as if they think you are not smart, 4) You receive worse service than other people at restaurants or stores, 5) People act as if they think you are dishonest.” For the societal problems variable, eight observable variables were used: “1) HIV/AIDS, 2) Becoming involved in crime, 3) Racial discrimination, 4) Poverty, 5) Not having good jobs, 6) Drug and alcohol abuse, 7) Not being responsible fathers,  and 8) Young black men not taking their education seriously enough.” Here, the  participants responded  using a scale from 0 to 2, with 0 meaning “not a problem,” and 2 meaning “big problem.” MEES was obtained by looking at seven circumstances : “Are you worried about 1) Not getting the health care you need, 2) Being arrested, 3) You or a family member getting HIV or AIDS, 4) Not having enough money to pay your bills, 5) Being the victim of a violent crime, 6) Being a victim of Racial Discrimination, and 7) Being unfairly treated by the police.” These variables were recorded from 0 to 3, using a four point scale, where a 0 meant “not at all worried,” and a 3 meant “very worried.”

The end results of Smith, Hung and Franklin’s research were startling: age was the only factor that influenced MEES for black males who did not graduate high school. If the survey respondents had graduated high school, had attended some college or had graduated college, racial microaggressions were significantly responsible for MEES in their daily lives: 7.7 percent for high school graduates, 18.3 percent for those who attended some college, and 29.6 percent for those who graduated college. In the findings of Smith, Hung, and Franklin, black men continuing to pursue education are affected significantly by racial microaggressions which increase instances of stress.

Racial Bias in STEM fields and Medical Sciences

In her research paper titled “Devalued Black and Latino Racial Identities: A By-Product of STEM College Culture?” researcher Ebony O. McGee set out to interview 38 academically impressive high-schoolers who self-identified as black and Latino/a.  Although the purpose of this research paper was to discover various ways that black and Latino students used to handle racial bias and profiling in STEM field related academic environments, McGee came across various instances where participants would describe the depths of racial discrimination they would have to face in their future disciplines.

McGee discovered that these individuals felt “deflated and exhausted” in dealing with the racism they faced frequently. Although the participants performed the social practices that were commonplace for their grade level, they reported feeling fatigued by continuing to do so. The students, according to McGee, “attempted to deflect the force of ever-present stereotypes by shifting their identities – while remaining keenly aware of Americanized notions of race.” In her concluding paragraphs, McGee also suggests that instances of implicit and open racial behavior and bias may be the reason why black recipients of STEM bachelor’s degree leave STEM careers at higher rates, in contrast to their white and Asian peers from the same fields who continue to stick with their careers.               

However, racism is not confined to STEM subjects. Medical schools are yet another well respected and sought-after academic institutions replete with racial prejudice and stereotypes. To explore how medical school admission committees participate in racism, Quinn Capers, Daniel Clinchot, and colleagues (365) designed a study to measure implicit racial bias among committee members and made all the 140 members – 43 faculty members, 97 students; 67 women, 73 men – of the Ohio State University College of Medicine (OSUCOM) take the black-white implicit association test (IAT) –  a bias detection test that looks for prejudice an individual may not recognize in himself or herself. The test involves test-takers identifying facial images positively or negatively. Participants are asked to first pair black faces to positive words and then white faces to negative words. After this, the order is reversed. The difference in response time for these associations is recorded and it is used to indicate the presence of what Capers, Clinchot and colleagues find to be “implicit” racial prejudice.

The results revealed that while all groups of participants demonstrated statistically significant levels of implicit white preference, faculty members and males were the most biased in this direction, and females the least biased. The tests also showed that African Americans, both physicians and non physicians, tend to demonstrate no or negligible amount of racial bias on the Implicit Association Test, suggesting that a prominent presence of African Americans on admissions committees may help medical schools reduce the impacts of racial bias on black student admissions. 

Are biases in medical school admissions limited to the admissions committees, or do they manifest themselves in MCAT tests as well? A research paper titled “Do Racial and Ethnic Group Differences in Performance on the MCAT Exam Reflect Test Bias?” set out to answer this question. The paper by Dwight Davis, J. Kevin Dorsey, and colleagues examined data from research findings about the MCAT test scores of white, black and Latino medical school applicants, and concluded whether MCAT differences in the performance of different racial groups reflect test bias (inherent bias in a test against a certain group of people).

According to the paper by Davis, Dorsey, and colleagues, the mean MCAT scores for black and Latino students were lower than those for white students. However, there was no evidence suggesting that these score differences represented any form of explicit or implicit test bias. Therefore, according to the research of Davis, Dorsey and colleagues, differences in test scores could be explained by factors other than racial bias which might be “family and neighborhood characteristics, educational factors, and geographic conditions.”

Possible solutions      

All the evidence that we examined until now points towards the fact that racism in American academia starts in kindergarten and intensifies as he or she moves up the academic ladder to a university or a college. But how could  this race problem actually be solved? Nida Denson, in her research paper titled “Do Curricular and Cocurricular Diversity Activities Influence Racial Bias? A Meta-Analysis,” tried to answer this question.

Denson divided the term educational diversity into three separate categories – “structural diversity, classroom diversity, and informal interactional diversity” – and separately studied these three phenomenon looking for answers to three questions: “1) What is the magnitude of the general relationship between curricular and cocurricular diversity activities on racial bias? 2) Is there a variation in the effect of curricular and cocurricular diversity activities on racial bias?” and 3) What are the reasons for the presence of this variation, if any? Ultimately, in her research, Denson discovered that diversity-related programs on college campuses indeed bring about a positive change, and reduce the racial bias of university students.

Indeed, it’s not just students’ racial bias that is affected by diversity and diversity-encouraging activities. Nicholas Bowman in his work ““College Diversity Experiences and Cognitive Development: A Meta- Analysis,” discovered that college diversity experiences also affect students’ cognitive ability in a positive light. The author states, “College diversity experiences are associated with gains in cognitive skills, cognitive tendencies, and multiple/other cognitive outcomes, which underscores the role that these experiences may play in promoting various forms of student development.” In other words, diversity in academic environments may ultimately help students improve their cognitive abilities and overcome their racial bias.


As demonstrated by various evidences gathered throughout this research paper, it becomes clear that racial bias still persists in American academia from its very beginning all the way to its end. Starting with more police encounters in schools, African American students have to face increasing instances of racial bias as they climb up the ladder of academics. African Americans witness microaggressions in colleges, are devalued in STEM fields, face unfair competition while trying to get into medical schools, and experience lower levels of self-esteem and self-confidence due to these separate experiences. With the depth of evidence examined, it becomes clear that this problem is well-established and is detrimental to the well being of African American communities all across the United States.

Whatever the case might be, it is not appropriate to assume that the problem of racism in academia cannot be solved. Encouraging diversity and making students interact with peers on an interracial level can help us overcome this problem up to a significant extent. Promoting interactions amongst diverse groups of students is the key to help them improve their cognitive skills. The presence of racism in academia does not necessarily mean that there are no solutions to solving it; rather, it means that there is work to be done to solve this crisis and to ensure an equal academic opportunity and an equal future for all.


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Image: pixabay

Shreyansh is pursuing a B.S. in Economics and Statistics with a minor in Journalism at George Washington University. Another version of this piece was published here. Shreyansh may be contacted at shreyanshbudhia@gwu.edu