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Are Educators Less Racist Than the Rest of Us?

Guest post by Holly Yettick

Let me tell you about the educators. They are different from you and me. For one thing, they are generally less racist, according to a study published in August in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal. 

The study, conducted by David M. Quinn of the University of Southern California, used nationally-representative data from the longstanding General Social Survey to compare the views of educators (including teachers and administrators) and non-educators across a range of race-related measures.

For example:

  • 31 percent of pre-K-12 educators attribute inequalities to a lack of motivation among African Americans, as compared to 46 percent of non-educators.
  • 56 percent of pre-K-12 educators say that insufficient educational opportunities for African Americans explain inequities, as compared to 46 percent of non-educators.
  • Compared to non-educators, educators are more likely to report that someone in their family brought a friend of a different race home for dinner in the past few years. They are also more open to living in a neighborhood that is half black, half Asian, or half Hispanic. 

Most of these differences are not necessarily related to educators' profession of choice: When Quinn accounted for demographic differences between educators and non-educators, the differences largely disappeared. An especially big reason is that educators are more educated than the population as a whole. Higher levels of education are associated with more liberal attitudes toward race. Quinn did not find major differences between educators and non-educators based on race, in large part because educators are overwhelmingly white. However, educators and non-educators of color did express fewer racial stereotypes and more positive attitudes toward minorities. 

In at least one case, pre-K-12 educators were less racially liberal than demographically-similar non-educators. The educators were significantly more likely to believe that it was likely that a white person would not get hired or promoted while an equally or less qualified black person would. Pre-K-12 educators and non-educators alike also oppose preferential hiring for people of color. 

Compared to non-educators, educators were more likely to prioritize freedom of speech over anti-racist values. For instance, educators were more likely than non-educators to say that a person who believes that blacks are genetically inferior should be allowed to teach at a college.  

In general, the survey results suggest that educators are less likely than non-educators to buy into some racial stereotypes. However, they do give more positive ratings to white students than to black students. And they are more likely than non-educators to buy into "model minority" stereotypes that Asians are hardworking and intelligent.  

"For Asian students, it raises the concern that students' awareness of these stereotypes can be detrimental when students' self-expectations do not match the stereotype," Quinn writes. 

On balance, Quinn concludes that students whose parents have lower levels of educational attainment are exposed to less racism from teachers at school than from parents at home. But he notes that educators are not free from the overt racial biases that the survey measured. (The survey does not speak to implicit biases that educators may not even realize they possess.) 

"In the final survey year (2014), an estimated 4 percent of pre-K-12 educators and 3 percent of postsecondary educators reported believing that inequalities were mainly due to African Americans having less inborn ability to learn, " Quinn writes. "Though these percentages are small, it is disturbing to consider that some students are being exposed to teachers or administrators who hold such a belief. These figures have been on the decline (down from 11 percent and 9 percent of pre-K-12 and postsecondary educators in 1985), providing hope that the numbers will soon go to zero."

Holly Yettick directs the Education Week Research Center, which produces analyses for Education Week and as well as studies for external clients.  

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