‘Stereotype Threat’ Is Not Easily Countered

Tanya Hernandez in The New York Times Room for Debate, April 27, 2014

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By Tanya Hernandez

Social psychologists have noted that K-12 educators are unconsciously influenced by negative racial stereotypes that lead them to have different expectations of black and Latino students and different interpretations of their performance and behavior independent of their economic status. This means that K-12 educators may be inclined to steer black and Latino students away from the college prep courses and activities that facilitate the stronger high school letters of recommendation for college admission.

In the face of such steering, race-conscious affirmative action provides an important signal that black and Latino students will be welcomed and the full context of their backgrounds considered. In fact, sociologists Angel Harris and Marta Tienda have documented how Latino student college applications to the University of Texas fell drastically after the state of Texas eradicated race-conscious affirmative action and instituted the Top Ten Percent Plan, which guaranteed admission to applicants in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The current alternatives to fully race-conscious affirmative action simply do not have the same force to counter all the cultural cues that discourage Latino and black students from viewing themselves as the intellectual peers of whites worthy of even applying for admission.

It is thus not surprising then that “stereotype threat” continues to suppress the performance of Latino and black students. Psychologists have demonstrated that stereotype threat inhibits the performance of talented and well-educated black and Latino middle-class students on standardized tests because of the anxiety that the tests will confirm the longstanding negative stereotypes that blacks and Latinos are intellectually inferior.

In short, neither race-blind admissions nor income-based affirmative action can appropriately take into account the racialized reality of Latino and black middle-class applicants who will not qualify for income-based affirmative action. Nor can income-based admissions fully pursue black racial diversity in particular when the raw numbers of the white poor outnumber the black poor considerably. In contrast a race-conscious review can more properly assess the particular challenges that subtle and overt racism has presented for an applicant regardless of his or her socioeconomic status.

It is certainly a worthwhile goal to provide educational opportunity to students in need (presuming that income-based affirmative action is also accompanied by generous financial aid to make matriculation an actual possibility). But let us not be deceived into presuming that income-based policies alone can adequately pursue the important educational mission of fully integrating our institutions of higher learning to represent our nation’s rich racial tapestry in developing our future leaders and innovators.

Tanya Katerí Hernández, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, is the author of “Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response.”