An onslaught of videos depicting African Americans shot and killed by the police. A Republican presidential candidate who launches his campaign by hurling invective about the supposed depravity of Mexican immigrants and then charges toward the White House with the aid of racist dog whistles. Alt-right power players staking a claim to Donald Trump’s kingdom of bluster and bombast as a resurgent white-supremacist movement, finding a happy home in the Twitter-sphere, turns cyberbullying into the new burning cross.
It should come as no surprise, given the pervasiveness of such race-centered strife and chaos as well as the hyper-saturation of its myriad horrors on social media, that a recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that Americans are as pessimistic about race relations as they were during the 1992 Rodney King riots.
New research suggests the stress all of this racial conflict generates may itself do lasting damage to the next generation of people of color in the United States. According to a new paper out of Northwestern University, race-based stress kick-starts psychological and biological changes among black and Latino children that compromise their school performance and ultimately widen school achievement disparities between races. “Just the awareness of these events and the awareness of risk of discrimination, risk of death is enough to mobilize stress processes,” says one of the paper’s authors, Emma K. Adam, PhD, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern.
The math and reading achievement gaps between white students and black and Latino students have tapered off since the 1970s, with progress stalling and even reversing somewhat during the late 1980s and the 1990s. Achievement gaps today are 30 percent to 40 percent more narrow than three decades ago, but they remain substantial. Black and Latino students generally lag about two to three grade levels behind their white counterparts, an effect that hinders their prospects in the workforce and exacerbates income inequality.
Previous research into the cause of such educational disparities has largely focused on socioeconomic factors, which overlap considerably with race, as the major drivers. Children coming from economically disadvantaged homes tend to do worse in schools that are poorly funded to begin with. But even when controlling for socioeconomic status, researchers find that racial achievement gaps remain.
The new Northwestern paper, a review of a trove of psychological research published in the September issue of American Psychologist, seeks to widen the scope of the achievement-gap discussion. It argues that racism’s direct effects on young people are in fact partially responsible for such disparities—not the material realities of discrimination, but the physical and emotional experience of racism itself. The authors cite previous research showing that when children confront the threat of being negatively stereotyped or suffering discrimination because of their race, they experience changes in levels of the stress hormone cortisol and also suffer from poorer quality and quantity of sleep.