Why are black students tagged as troublemakers?

"The fact that black children are disproportionately disciplined in school is beyond dispute," says Jennifer Eberhardt. "What is less clear is why." (Credit: iStockphoto)

Black students in the United States are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled.

The reason why has not been clear, until now. A new study suggests teachers are likely to interpret students’ misbehavior differently depending on race.

“The fact that black children are disproportionately disciplined in school is beyond dispute,” says Jennifer Eberhardt, professor of psychology at Stanford University. “What is less clear is why.”

Name the problem student

Real-world primary and secondary school teachers were presented with school records describing two instances of misbehavior by a student.

In one study, after reading about each infraction, the teachers were asked about their perception of its severity, about how irritated they would feel by the student’s misbehavior, about how severely the student should be punished, and about whether they viewed the student as a troublemaker.

A second study followed the same protocol and asked teachers whether they thought the misbehavior was part of a pattern and whether they could imagine themselves suspending the student in the future.

Researchers randomly assigned names to the files, suggesting in some cases that the student was black (with a name such as DeShawn or Darnell) and in other cases that the student was white (with a name such as Greg or Jake).

Racial stereotypes

Across both studies, racial stereotypes shaped teachers’ responses not after the first infraction but rather after the second. Teachers felt more troubled by a second infraction they believed was committed by a black student rather than by a white student.

In fact, the stereotype of black students as “troublemakers” led teachers to want to discipline black students more harshly than white students after two infractions. They were more likely to see the misbehavior as part of a pattern, and to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future.

“We see that stereotypes not only can be used to allow people to interpret a specific behavior in isolation, but also stereotypes can heighten our sensitivity to behavioral patterns across time. This pattern sensitivity is especially relevant in the schooling context,” Eberhardt says.


The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, have implications beyond the school setting as well, says graduate student Jason Okonofua.

“Most social relationships entail repeated encounters. Interactions between police officers and civilians, between employers and employees, between prison guards and prisoners, all may be subject to the sort of stereotype escalation effect we have identified in our research.”
Useful interventions with teachers would help them to view student behavior as malleable rather than as a reflection of a fixed disposition, such as that of troublemaker.

While racial disparities can be lessened by psychological interventions that help improve black students’ behaviors in class, it is also important to understand how that behavior is interpreted by teachers and school authorities, Okonofua says.

Source: Stanford University