Research News

Racial Disparities in America | Part II

IPR researchers examine disparities in education and neighborhoods, offer policy insights

In the same month that a grand jury decided not to indict a white 28-year-old police officer for fatally shooting an 18-year-old African American high school graduate in Ferguson, Mo., mostly white Utah voters elected the nation’s first African American, Mormon, Republican woman to the U.S. House of Representatives. These contrasting events offer but one immediate illustration of the complexity and promise inherent to understanding, and potentially addressing, racial issues in America.

Given the difficult history of U.S. race relations—and the ensuing, sometimes imperceptible, effects of race on individuals and society—a significant number of IPR faculty are studying the issue across a wide spectrum of topics, from examining the black/white/Latino test score gap to tracing how the human mind reacts to a person of a different race or ethnicity. While the questions are difficult and the answers never simple, IPR researchers always strive to conduct high-quality research, capable of informing meaningful dialogue and policy.

For the second part of the series, we cover IPR research related to race, education, and neighborhoods. The first part discussed IPR research on interracial relations and racial disparities in health outcomes.


Research on Racial Disparities in Education

Just eight days before his death, Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School in St. Louis. According to the most recent Institute of Education Sciences report for 2011–12, just over 61 percent of its students graduated. That same year at Clayton High School, just seven miles away, 99 percent of students graduated. Clayton, considered one of Missouri’s top-ranked high schools by Newsweek, is 62 percent white, with 2 percent of its student body receiving free lunch; Normandy is 99 percent African American, and 72 percent of its students are eligible for free lunch. Though community efforts are underway to improve Normandy High School, these statistics are emblematic of a larger problem: Nationally, the high school graduation rate for blacks is 67 percent; for whites, it is 86 percent. Moreover, students from low-income families are five times more likely to drop out of high school than students from high-income families. 

These two high schools demonstrate the wide gaps in educational attainment—and subsequently, opportunity—that exist between students of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds in America. IPR researchers have examined various education interventions designed to help narrow such gaps, from quality preschools and small class sizes to high school placement exams and barriers to college.

lindsay chase-lansdale
Lindsay Chase-Lansdale

High-quality preschool programs have been shown to improve children’s reading and math scores in the short-term, as well as their success in the long run—for example, by increasing their lifetime earnings. These programs are especially beneficial for children from lower-income families. In addition to benefiting the youngest of students, a recent line of IPR research examines how early childhood education programs can have an impact on parents.

Take Head Start, for example. IPR developmental psychologists Terri Sabol and Lindsay Chase-Lansdale analyzed data from the Head Start Impact Study, a congressionally mandated randomized trial that followed more than 4,000 participants in Head Start programs through third grade. They observed that parents of 3-year-olds in Head Start advanced their own education, compared with parents of children not enrolled in Head Start. By the time their children reached age 6, African American parents were the most likely to see an increase in their education as a result of their children's participation in Head Start, compared with parents in all other racial/ethnic groups. Additionally, Chase-Lansdale and Sabol, along with IPR Senior Research Scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer, have been part of a national effort to study and pilot two-generation interventions, which offer education and job training, as well as financial and career guidance for parents and early high-quality education for their children up to age 6.

Dissecting data from the Project Star class-size experiment in Tennessee, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach finds that smaller, better-resourced elementary school classes of around 15 students benefit disadvantaged black students twice as much as white students. A later study suggests that small class size continues to have an effect well into adulthood with Project Star alumni earning more, saving more, and more likely to be employed. Additionally, the black students randomly assigned to smaller classes in the Tennessee experiment were twice as likely to go college, with a boost of 11 percentage points amongst black students who were less likely to enroll in the first place.

In addition to early education interventions, IPR faculty are also looking at programs that can benefit underprivileged high school students. IPR economist Jonathan Guryan is currently investigating an intervention that could help disadvantaged high schoolers, who are disproportionately from low-income and minority groups, stay on track to graduate. He and his colleagues are working with a group of mostly African American teens in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), fielding a project combining principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and individualized academic tutoring. The program’s benefits were equivalent to closing nearly two-thirds of the average gap in math test scores between white and black students—the equivalent of what the average American high school student learns in math over three years.

IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson has several lines of research investigating high school level factors at play, including single-sex and selective schools, teacher quality, and pay-for-performance incentives. He analyzed a Texas-based program that provides cash incentives to students and teachers when students pass Advanced Placement (AP) exams. The program focuses specifically on schools that serve low-SES and minority populations. After schools implemented it, Jackson found that more students enrolled in AP courses and took AP exams—particularly black and Hispanic students. Students also achieved higher SAT and ACT scores, and more of them enrolled in college. The program also boosted teacher effort, and, as a consequence of teacher effort, the quality of instruction.

Mesmin Destin
Mesmin Destin

Once minority students enter college, there are still more barriers to their success. In particular, first-generation college students receive lower grades and are more likely to drop out than those who have at least one parent with a 4-year college degree (continuing-generation students). This gap exists even when first-generation students are otherwise academically equal to their continuing-generation peers; it is the college context itself that impairs their performance. But remedying this issue can be as simple as participating in a one-hour program, according to IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin.

In Destin’s study, first- and continuing-generation students attended a program welcoming new students to a university. The program included a discussion where a diverse panel of college seniors relayed how their backgrounds affected their college experiences. The first-generation students who attended the panel not only reduced the achievement gap between themselves and students with a college-educated parent by 63 percent, but they also experienced less stress and anxiety, adjusted better to college life, and were more academically and socially engaged than those in the control group.

As the nation’s population grows more diverse, many institutions of higher learning will continue to remain interested in diversifying their student body by considering race in the admissions process. Yet several recent challenges to race-conscious affirmative action programs, such as the Supreme Court's decision in April to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in college and university admissions, serve to highlight how controversial they remain. Despite the intensity of the debate, surprisingly little is known about how such policies came to be. IPR sociologist Anthony S. Chen and his collaborators have been exploring a wide range of archival manuscripts to understand why American colleges and universities adopted affirmative action in the first place. Their evidence challenges the still-popular idea that the initial advent of affirmative action was primarily a response to campus unrest or urban riots during the late 1960s. They find that affirmative action actually originated in the early 1960s, as key numbers of college and university leaders drew inspiration from the civil rights movement and began seek out new ways of making racial integration a reality at the Northern, Midwestern, and Western schools over which they presided.

Research on Racial Disparities and Neighborhoods

Ferguson is situated within the St. Louis metropolitan area, one of the most segregated regions in the country. IPR sociologist Lincoln Quillian has studied many aspects of how segregation can shape educational and life outcomes.

lincoln quillian
Lincoln Quillian

In a recent article, he found that more segregated metropolitan areas had lower high school graduation rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, yet rates for students from advantaged backgrounds remained the same. This suggests that for education, “Segregation increases the disadvantage of disadvantaged groups without increasing the advantage of advantaged groups." While school reform is important to reduce gaps, Quillian’s research concludes that neighborhood conditions must also be addressed to affect more powerful changes.

Additionally, increased segregation is linked to higher rates of incarceration as several studies by political scientist and IPR associate Traci Burch have shown. In a recent article analyzing data from 5,000 North Carolina neighborhoods, she traced how high numbers of jailed individuals in a single neighborhood can adversely affect many neighborhood aspects—from increasing crime and poverty to reducing voter participation and civic engagement. Overall, a neighborhood in a highly segregated county would have twice the number of residents locked up as compared with those living in a county with far less segregation.

While many studies of segregation focus on low-SES neighborhoods, sociologist and African American studies researcher and IPR associate Mary Pattillo’s research centers on middle-class African American neighborhoods. Though middle-class blacks have more advantages than poor blacks, they nevertheless live in areas with more crime, poverty, unemployment, fewer college graduates, more vacant homes, and more single-parent families than do middle-class whites—and even poor whites, Pattillo has found. Her results point to discrimination in the housing market as a factor in blacks’ decision to remain in less integrated neighborhoods, despite a willingness to move. Pointing to a link between middle-class black neighborhoods and “the preferences and behaviors of whites,” she argues that more progress must be made to change whites’ preferences and behaviors as a way to increase mobility and integration.

IPR political scientist Wesley Skogan has a significant body of work examining how police and communities can collaborate to improve neighborhoods, including a 2012 study of 279 Chicago police beats showing how community beat meetings might have played a role in decreasing neighborhood crime rates in mostly poor, African American neighborhoods in the city. Skogan also studies how people react to a police presence in their neighborhoods. In an earlier study from 2008, he analyzed reports of police misconduct in Washington, D.C., a city that is 50 percent black according to the 2010 census. He and his colleagues found that young black men were more likely than others to report that they had been stopped by the police. Forty-three percent of 18- to 29-year-old black males had been stopped while driving during the previous year, compared with 18 percent of young white males. Blacks were about twice as likely as whites to believe that the city’s police stop too many people without good reason, that they are too tough on those they stop, and that they are verbally or physically abusive toward citizens. Class also shaped views of police misconduct, with less-educated respondents more likely to believe it was a problem in their neighborhoods. These results, Skogan writes, highlight a “continued division among blacks and whites over policing.”

For additional IPR research on the topic, including on race relations and health, read more here.