Racial Profiling Starts in Preschool & Now I Have Another Reason to Worry About My Son

I was driving into work this morning when a story on NPR caught my attention. This story described research that uncovered that preschool teachers are, often unknowingly, paying extra attention to African-American children, especially boys. This attention isn't in the form of academic or social support. Instead, it is extra time spent observing to see if they are causing trouble or acting out behaviorally. It's profiling -- and it's starting so early.


This research study was partially designed to try to determine why it is that African-American children are almost four times as likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. As NPR points out, here's another way to look at this: Black children account for roughly 19 percent of all preschoolers, but nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.

Preschool suspension. Let's take a second and just process that this is even a thing that happens to 3- and 4-year-olds. Children who are barely done being babies, already being told they don't belong when it comes to school, already being denied the opportunity to learn. 

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After running scenarios in which preschool teachers were asked to watch videos of preschoolers and watch for "trouble," researchers found that participants were much more likely to watch the black boys in the video. In another experiment, white teachers were more likely to have lower expectations of black children.

To explain this, researchers speculate that preschool teachers have implicit bias (or subtle and subconscious stereotypes) where African-American boys are concerned. Teachers expect black boys to act out in school, and therefore are more watchful and quick to act if they are being disruptive -- even if other children are engaged in the same behavior. Getting caught more often leads to more discipline and more suspensions.

When I arrived at the community college where I work, I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, trying to collect myself. As an educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about why it is that there are still shocking achievement gaps in my state. When you look at things like test scores, high school graduation rates, and college attendance, our students of color aren't succeeding the way we want them to be. At the college level, we work hard to level the playing field, but stories like this just make it clear how deep the roots of the problem really are.

The truth of the matter is that our African-American children face challenges related to equity and educational quality before they are, in some cases, even fully potty trained. If children face bias as early as preschool, it makes it clear that whatever interventions we come up with at the college level are probably too late. 

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The truth is also that I sat in the car for a while thinking about my own kids, who are biracial. My daughter is in preschool now. I love visiting her bright and cheerful classroom. I love seeing her excitement about the art station and circle time. Her classroom is multicultural and is a little oasis where kids from a range of backgrounds get to learn together and nobody gets suspended. It is still a little oasis of good cheer and protection from the bigger world. I'm not too worried about my daughter. 

But I do worry about my son. Miles is an 8-year-old in third grade. He is smart and funny and a total chatterbox. He sometimes struggles with focus and sometimes has to be reminded about not being physical with other students (he's a hugger). Though he is long out of preschool, I can't help but wonder if this same kind of implicit bias could be found in teachers at all levels. I have to wonder if he is going to face more consequences for these totally normal 8-year-old behaviors than other classmates might.

Is Miles really the most talkative kid in his class? Or is he just the one his teacher watches the most? And, deep sigh, how on earth do I talk to his teacher about that?

His teacher seems like a lovely woman who likes Miles, even if she wishes he'd focus a little more. I think he'll do fine in her class. But I can't help but wonder what Miles's future teachers will be like. Will they see his charm and curious mind? Or will they be watching to see if he is causing trouble? 

I don't harbor any illusions that my kid is perfect. I know he can be loud and messy and easily distractable. I don't expect that he'll always make the right decisions at school -- he'll make mistakes just like any other kid. I want him to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. I just wish it didn't feel so much like the stakes are higher and the risks greater for him and other kids who look like him, just because of the color of their skin.  


Image via Wendy Robinson

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