Education’s Ethnic and Racial Issues – by Dr. Gail Dawson

Ethnic and Racial Disparity in education is a persistent societal problem. In light of changing demographics and an increasingly diverse society, we must find ways to address education disparities and close the gap. Three key factors contribute to differences in education for ethnic and racial minority children: Expectations, Exposure and Environment.


The expectations, assumptions and stereotypes that a person brings into a situation may have a significant effect on the experience and outcome created. For example, imagine the following scenario:

A first-grade teacher at a prestigious, private school has just been told that a new student is transferring into the class. The only information the teacher has been given is that the new student is an African American male who is transferring from a large northern city where he attended public school in the inner-city.

What expectations might this teacher have about this new student?

All of these expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes have the potential to get in the way and not allow a teacher to really see his or her student and be able to relate to and teach that student. In addition, the student may be dealing with expectations of his own. The student may have negative expectations about the ability of the teacher to relate to and understand him as well as negative expectations about the teacher’s desire to teach him. In addition, the student may have negative expectations of his own abilities as a result of internalizing the negative expectations he may have been subjected to from society and perhaps even parents.

In a recent speech, Bill Strickland made the following statement, “If you build prisons, you will get prisoners.” This speaks to the fact that people have the tendency to live up to or down to our expectations of them. This is especially true of children. My mother was an elementary school teacher in an inner-city school in Philadelphia where the students were predominantly Black and Hispanic. The surrounding neighborhood was appropriately nicknamed ‘The Badlands.’ Most people had very few positive expectations of the children in this school, but I saw my mother repeatedly take the students in the bottom first-grade class and transform them into the top first-grade class by the end of the school year. I also had the opportunity to accompany several of her class trips where strangers remarked at how well-behaved her students were and inquired about the school the children attended. I saw the look of disbelief and amazement when my mother proudly told them that the children were from Fairhill Elementary school. My mother repeated proved that when you have high expectations of a child and treat them with respect, you will get high performance.


Another factor that creates disparity in education for racial and ethnic minorities is exposure. Many of these children are not exposed to the same things as their white counterparts. This puts them at a disadvantage when they are expected to know and are graded on concepts and materials that they have never been exposed to. In addition, lack of exposure may limit their aspirations. If you have never seen someone you can relate to in certain types of fields, you may have difficulty imagining yourself being successful in them. If you have never seen a Black doctor or lawyer or president, you may not be able to conceive of pursuing those kinds of goals. For example, many of the girls served by Girls Inc. of

Chattanoogans who have grown up in housing projects and some have difficulty imagining a future beyond that. In the first year of the Entrepreneurship Camp, most of the girls only thought of hair and nail salons when they thought of business ownership. Through exposure to different types of businesses, they expanded their thinking and created business plans for all kinds of businesses.


In some cases the environment that children from racial and ethnic minorities grow up in are very different from the environments of their counterparts. It is more likely that they are dealing with issues of poverty, violence, or other factors that place undue stress on these children. Many of these children are exposed to conditions that can create the equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; yet not only are they not being treated for it, but they are expected to enter a classroom situation and compete with children who are not dealing with these kinds of environmental factors. Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder include: difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering things, anger, problems regulating emotions, irritability, lack of interest, and a sense of foreshortened future which causes people to not think about or plan for the future sometimes with the belief that they will not live much longer. Under these circumstances, it would be nearly impossible for the children to learn and be successful in academic pursuits without receiving appropriate treatment.

What Can We Do?

To help close the gap in education and academic achievement, we must first acknowledge the factors that are creating the gap and properly address them. We must examine our own expectations and how they may affect the interactions we have with others. We should also be aware of the expectations that others may have of themselves and their abilities. We may need to build the self-esteem and confidence of children before they can even imagine what they are capable of achieving. In addition, we can help create and better fund organizations that help expose children to greater opportunities that will expand their horizons and help them conceive of and pursue higher aspirations. Addressing these differences in expectations, exposure, and environment provide a good start to closing this gap.

Gail Dawson PhD

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