Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The construction of racial difference through social interaction

In the U.S., there is a widespread belief that those who work hard will be rewarded with success.  This faith in “meritocracy” will also lead us to the conclusion that those who do not succeed did not try hard enough.  Many have made the claim that education can be the “great equalizer” where all children are given an equal chance to be anything they want to be.  However, the reality is that certain groups of children (i.e. poor, Black, Hispanic, American Indian, etc.) are not succeeding at the same rate as other groups (i.e. middle to upper-class, Whites, some groups of Asians) in school.

In an effort to explain this phenomenon, some have proposed the idea certain cultures place more emphasis on hard work, education, or economic status than others.  However, this conclusion has been consistently refuted in recent research.  A more convincing argument, and one that bears out in numerous qualitative studies, is that of “social capital,” a concept that Pierre Bourdieu has used to describe the resources (i.e. finances, social networks, cultural knowledge, and status) that children bring with them to school.  From this framework, children enter school with varying amounts of the social capital necessary to succeed in school, and therefore end up with very different experiences and outcomes unless there is significant effort to mitigate these inequities.  Lewis (2001, 2003) examines how schools reproduce existing social hierarchies and reinforce the construct of racial difference. 

Amanda Lewis spent a year in three different elementary schools in California: Foresthills, West City and Metro2.  Foresthills is a mostly white, middle-class suburban school, while West City and Metro2 are both located in the city.  West City is described a neighborhood school with mostly black and Hispanic students, but with predominantly white teachers and administrators.  Metro2 is a language immersion school that mostly “non-white” in terms of the student population, as well as teachers and administrators.  The through-line of the narrative is the understanding of racial differences that is implicit in interactions in each school.  Although the schools are seemingly different, they each serve a foil to the others by revealing commonalities in the way people give meaning to the concept of race.  For the students at West City and Metro2, this has implications for their success or failure in school.  At Foresthills, constructions of racial differences serve to perpetuate a segregated white community that is left with unexamined and unchallenged assumptions and biases. 

I found myself most riveted by the description of Foresthills.  I could see so many parallels to my own experience in a predominantly white school.  Current statistics from my elementary school indicate that it is much the same as it was over 20 years ago: 89% white, 17% free/reduced lunch (“Glen Carbon Elem School,” 2010).   My high school shows similar demographics, with the exception that there are over 2,000 students instead of only 400 (“Edwardsville High School,” 2010).  I never realized that I went to a “white” school.  The concept of race was muted in my world, except for racial lines that clearly delineated what neighborhoods in which we would not live and the kinds of people with whom we did not associate.  Sometime after college, I discovered the book “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” I actually wondered how Dr. Tatum (2003) knew about my high school.  It was the question that was always somewhere in my mind, but I had never asked.  I was amazed to find that other people had asked similar questions and was intrigued to find out the answer.  I found that there was no simple answer, but that the topic was so much more complex than I had ever imagined. 

Lewis’ (2001) radical assertion is that White middle- to upper-class schools need a critical multicultural curriculum, not only for the small percentage of students of color in these schools.  This multicultural education must go beyond a cursory treatment of “ethnic” history and culture, such as confining black history to one month and hosting Cinco de Mayo celebrations.  White students need to understand and unpack “white privilege,” as well as the segregated nature of their schools, neighborhoods, churches, and social groups.  Without this type of education, white schools only serve to perpetuate a “color-blind” ideology that fails to challenge institutional racism and social stratification.  In turn, these students go one to be the teachers of the next generation.  In the case of West City, it became evident that white, black or Latino teachers with unexamined and unchallenged constructs of racial can actually act in ways that harm the students they desire to help.  Differential treatment of black and Hispanic students played out in daily interactions, enacting chain reactions with damaging results.  Metro2 served as a school where teachers and staff attempted to directly address race, but even this school was not immune to the insidious assumptions about racial differences.  It became evident that on-going, critical multicultural professional development is also needed for teachers if the cycle is to be broken. 


Edwardsville High School. (2010).National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from

Glen Carbon Elem School. (2010).National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from

Lewis, A. E. (2001). There is no “race” in the schoolyard: Color-blind ideology in an (almost) all-white school. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 781–811. 

Lewis, A. E. (2003). Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities. Rutgers series in childhood studies. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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