Skip to Content
Advanced Search

Racial Barriers in Education


Codginton, A. (1999). Research on Racial Barriers in Education. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.



(Download Racial Barriers overview as a PDF)


Elementary and middle school students don’t care or notice that most, if not all, of us had white teachers throughout our formal years. In 1979 through 1986—the years that I was in elementary and middle school—all but three of my teachers were white. Even when I did have a black teacher, I never thought about it. It was just another teacher. I didn’t realize until high school that it was important to have an instructor of the same ethnic background. High school is the primary time of adolescence, when the need to separate and identify is most prevalent. Adolescents seek independence and tend to renounce what their parents and former instructors taught them. Students’ eyes are opened, and for the very first time they realize that having an African American teacher is a privilege that many never experience. It becomes important to have an instructor who can identify with the dilemmas of young black students, and who can offer some answers to the many questions, feelings, and fears that they may have.


Practitioners and researchers have implied that teacher behavior and attitudes vary by race and gender of the teacher (Washington, 1982). Linda Valli states that two popular slogans among teachers are: "If you don’t see the color, you don’t see the child," and "Teachers should be color blind." These two slogans seem to contradict one another. In order to be color blind, you might conclude that teachers would have to ignore their students. However, this was not the case in Ms. Valli’s study. She found that teachers are able to connect with their students because color no longer functioned as a barrier (1995). There are, however, many indications that teachers have different attitudes toward minority children than they do toward white children (Washington, 1982). One study indicates that among both black and white teachers, white girls and boys receive a larger share of teacher approvals than do black boys and girls. Additionally, both black and white teachers perceive white students more positively and black students more negatively. Ironically, black boys and girls and white boys are viewed more negatively than positively by both black and white teachers. The conclusion of the study indicates that the race of the pupil seems to be the most critical variable on teacher perceptions (Washington, 1982). Other research demonstrates that black students believe that their white teachers have low estimates of their ability and worth (Christmon, 1989).


Gloria Ladson-Billings writes an article about her experiences of teaching both African-American and caucasian students. Ladson-Billings teaches a college-level education course for pre-teaching and non pre-teaching majors. Her class addresses multicultural issues. She instructs her students to journal and discuss their thoughts openly in class. She discovered that African-American students are open in their discussions and quick to express their views. However, in comparison, the caucasian students say little. In the students’ journals, which she later collected, she found statements that helped her understand what they were thinking. Some of the black students mentioned that they enjoyed the class and the discussions, but were angry with the white students for not speaking. The black students were also angry with the white students for not knowing enough information about issues that pertained to minorities; for example, the meaning of apartheid and the history of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The comments from the white students expressed that they felt as though they did not know enough about certain topics and did not want to appear ignorant or racist, so they kept silent.


This experience enlightened the author, because before teaching this class, she interpreted silence as agreement. When she did not receive feedback from her students, she assumed that they understood and agreed with the subject matter. Through this class and the informal study, she realized that silence was used as a weapon in the classroom. Ladson-Billings likened this to the process of voting. She said that a growing number of African-Americans and minorities are voting; historically, groups such as African-Americans would not vote if they felt the candidate did not take into consideration their interests. A Muslim group once renounced voting when they were against a particular party. This in and of itself was a political statement. She now believes that silence in the classroom should not be taken for granted and ignored. Ladson-Billings suggests that if students are against what is being taught, they tend to remain silent in defiance of the instructor and the material being taught (1996).


Multicultural illiteracy is the inability to be conversant with basic ideas, issues, personalities, and events that reflect the perspectives and experiences of people other than white, middle-class males (Ladson-billings, 1990). Carl Grant says, "the problems associated with human diversity as it relates to sex, race, class, age, and physical differences in the public schools will not be resolved until our teachers are thoroughly prepared to deal with these problems in a comprehensive manner." (1975) Multicultural education has been recommended because most teacher education programs do not satisfactorily prepare students to accept and affirm human diversity in race, class, sex, age, and handicap. Grant says that teacher education preparation institutions actively perpetuate biases by failing to address multicultural education (1975). Banks concludes that teachers’ racial attitudes are difficult to change. He adds that their negative behavior towards ethnic students could be changed, if the total school environment including teaching materials, strategies, and teacher training were the object of change (1975).


The history of African-Americans needs to be taught in schools year round. This would benefit both African-American and caucasian students. Some white students in Valli’s study have admitted that they were only taught European history when they attended school; now they feel shorthanded to teach a racially mixed class or multicultural issues. The lack of multicultural education affects the way students think and conceptualize the world. For instance, it would be wrong for black history to teach only about slavery and the oppression of black people. Included in the curriculum should be blacks who succeeded, those who wrote plays and music, and those who actively participated in politics. Minorities need to know that their people accomplished much, and were not just oppressed.


Matt Christmon, in 1989, asserted that increased contact with majority members may actually lower black self-esteem. He suggests that white teachers do not understand the tools needed for teaching black children. Especially in the inner-city, he believes that the overwhelming presence of white teachers and few black professionals may have long-term, negative effects on the life progression of black people. The study on Ms. Ladson-Billings class confirms that teachers are entering the field with very little knowledge about multi-cultural curricula. The very students that are most likely to be in direct contact with racial, ethnic, linguistic, and economic diversity appear to know the least about it (1991).




What I have found in my research is that the importance does not lie with whom is teaching, but rather what is taught. Teacher education programs need to develop a variety of strategies for integrating information and experiences about diversity into academic courses. In addition to lessons, content, and testing, students also spend a considerable amount of time studying their teachers. Thus, teachers must not only become transparent in their own lives, but must also learn to be sensitive to the issues and influences which have shaped students. If the instructor and the student can learn to be color blind, there will probably be more success in educating a culturally diverse population.


It is sad to think that even in 1999, society still has so much to learn about looking beyond skin color. Ms. Ruth Sherman, a New York City public school third grade teacher, suffered much for reading a book, Nappy Hair, to her class. The book was written by Caroliva Herron, an African-American author, about her own childhood experiences with her hair. Professor Herron told the New York Times (December 9, 1998) that she was not trying to be " ‘a political activist,’ " but that " ‘she loves her nappy hair and thought everybody loved theirs.’ " One Brooklyn resident commented that he was " ‘suspicious of a white teacher teaching something so historically negative.’ "The book was meant to encourage appreciation of cultural diversity and ethnic uniqueness. Relentless threats were made by parents who believed that because Sherman was white, she had no business teaching African American children multicultural material. So, Sherman was forced to quit.


Sherman understood the need to incorporate into the curriculum multicultural literature, yet because of how she was treated, others may be fearful to cross the line. Isoke T. Nia, an African-American instructor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said she has seen white teachers teach black history better than some African-American teachers (The New York Times, December 20, 1998).


The study concludes that African-American children do not learn better or faster as a result of having an African-American teacher. Rather, learning and teaching comes with ability to teach and learn. If a teacher is able to be an example and foster a sense of community and identity within a student, then learning will follow.



Christmon, M. (1989). Black Students: Self-esteem and Achievement


Grant, C.A. (1975). Education That is Multi-cultural and Teacher Preparation: An Examination from the Perspectives of Pre-service Students. Journal of Educational Research

, 75, pp. 95-101.

Holloway, L. (1998, November 25). School Officials Support Teacher on Book that Parents Call Racially Insensitive

. The New York Times, East Coast Late Ed., sec. B: 10-12.

___. Threatened Over Book, Teacher Leaves School

. (1998, December 1). New York Times, East Coast Late Ed., sec. B: 3-4.

___. Author of Disputed Book is Criticized in Brooklyn

. (1998, December 9). New York Times, East Coast Late Ed., sec. B: 13-15.

___. Despite Furor Over a Book, Multiculturalism Flourishes in Schools

. (1998, December 20). New York Times, East Coast Late Ed., sec. 1: 51-53.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1991). Beyond Multi-cultural Illiteracy

. Journal of Negro Education, 60, pp. 147-157.

___. (1991). Coping with Multi-cultural Illiteracy: A Teacher Educator’s Response

. Social Education, 55, pp. 186-190.

___. (1996). Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students

. Theory into Practice, 35, pp. 79-85.

Smith, D. (1998, November 25). Furor Over Book Brings Pain and Pride to its Author

. New York Times, East Coast Late Ed., sec. B: 10-11.

Valli, L. (1995). The Dilemma of Race: Learning to be Color Blind and Color Conscious

. Journal of Teacher Education, 46, pp. 120-125.

Washington, V. (1982). Racial Differences in Teacher Perceptions of First and Fourth Grade Pupils on Selected Characteristics

. Journal of Negro Education, 51, pp. 60-72.

Atasha Codginton cCYS