Institutional Racism and Its Effects on Latino Students

8 August 2016

The purpose of this paper is to examine the detrimental effects institutional racism in education has on Latino academic achievement. Consideration is given to the role of educators in perpetuating racist attitudes; the ineffective acculturation measures and the adverse effects resulting from the diminished academic expectations. Latino children exit K-12 systems deficient of the necessary skills to thrive in higher education or in the workplace; facts which foster complacency. Qualitative and quantitative data are used to support arguments and observations.

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Additionally, this paper is intended to promote dialog about a problem that will have long lasting implications on society at large and the growing role Latinos will play in affecting the trends in educational paradigm shifts. Institutional Racism and Its Effects on Latino Students The idea of institutional racism in education conjures up visions of the Plessy vs. Ferguson era of segregation, when common practice was “separate but equal” institutions. It was 1954, with the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision of Brown vs.

Board of Education, that the practice of legal racial segregation was deemed unconstitutional. Its passing represented an end to de jure segregation for Blacks, but had little impact on the segregation of Latinos, who were considered demographically White. It was not until 1970 when the Supreme Court in Cisneros vs. Corpus Christi Independent School District ruled that Latinos comprised a separate ethnic group, that the full effects of Brown vs. Board of Education also encompassed Latinos.

Although de jure segregation was outlawed, white flight has, by default, led to de facto segregation, which has resulted in a new breed of institutional racism. A more subtle racism but equally insidious that indelibly changes the lives of Latino youth by allowing the perpetuation of inferior instruction, by stripping students of their ethnic pride, and ultimately culminating in fostering an attitude of mediocrity. It is irrefutable that most educators have students’ best interests at heart when imparting instruction; however, this does not diminish the fact that racial bias affects the manner in which it is done. Garcia (2001) explains the Pobrecito Syndrome as the inclination of many educators to lower the academic expectations of Latino students because of perceived disadvantages, such as language and poverty. While not intentional, the prejudice becomes so ingrained in the perception, that it becomes increasingly difficult to extrapolate it. The lowering of expectations begins early in the academic tenure of Latino children and creates progressive achievement disparities between them and White peers (Garcia & Jensen, 2009).

Indeed, the intention is to protect and unburden those whom educators perceive as underprivileged, however it is this over- coddling that sets Latino children up for failure by undermining their ability to compete academically, and later professionally. In a 2009 focus group conducted by the National Council of La Raza, 60 Latino youth ages 15 to 17 from Maryland, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and California “…reported significant ethnic stereotyping by teachers, administrators, and peers.

Such stereotyping, they feel, often leads Hispanic students to be overlooked, excluded, or negatively tracked and results in unequal educational opportunities” (p. 15); a fact which clearly demonstrates the pervasive and detrimental effects of institutional racism; intentional or not. A combination of factors has been effectively employed to systematically strip Latino youth of their ethnic identity, in particular the process of Americanization and the notion of color-blindness.

For purposes of clarity, ethnic identity will be referent to the self-concept one develops as a result of belonging to a particular group in which similar customs, values, beliefs and language is shared. Garcia (2001) describes the “Americanization” theory as one that espouses the notion of the dominant Anglo culture as ideal and one to which Latinos should conform by learning English and adopting American values (p. 50). The ultimate goal of those who promote the Americanization theory is to convince Latino youth that internalizing and adopting American culture will be beneficent to their success in mainstream America. The most recent approach utilized in American schools to divorce Latino students of their ethnic identity is “colorblindness”. Ullucci describes colorblind ideology as the misunderstanding that racism exists, the denial of racial and cultural backgrounds, and the devaluation of culturally relevant pedagogies (2010). Its basic premise is that Latino and other non-dominant cultures are inherently flawed and their cultural existence should be dismissed by turning a blind eye.

Both methods convey the negative message to impressionable Latino youth that there is no place in education for their old world culture (Garcia, 2001) and both neglect the fact that today’s ever growing ethnic populations warrant race conscious dialogue. Disproportionately, U. S schools are failing Latino youth and relegating them to repeat cycles of poverty and of unfulfilled dreams. The U. S Department of Education (2010) indicates that Latino youth continue to have the highest drop-out rates of any other group, at about 15 percent, which for Latinos translates to about 134,000 youth (Fry & Taylor, 2013).

These young high school drop-outs are more apt to engage in low-paying work, to struggle with unemployment, or to depend on government aid as a result of insufficient basic skills knowledge (Foxen, 2010). While the dropout rate is disturbing, more unsettling is the exponential number of students who graduate ill-prepared for the rigors of collegiate education and for a job market requiring a more highly skilled workforce (Foxen, 2010). By the droves, these students, as a result of teacher expectations, are disengaging from their own education to carry out the self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity.

The fact that 83% of educators are White, middle class women creates another layer of disconnect for Latino students who are unable to positively identify with successful role models who share their background (Gandara, 2000). Unable to see themselves reflected in the degree-earning demographics and having few encounters with educators who are adequately trained to understand their plight, Latino youth are simply rendered impotent to affect change, thus completing their assent into hopelessness.

Conversely, some believe that Latino apathy toward education, rather than institutional racism, is what impedes academic success. It is their work ethic and lack of familial support that disengages students from the learning process. If Latino students would stop being lazy and commit to their studies and if parents would get involved and show some interest in their children’s education, instead of blaming poor performance on teacher bias, then success would be inevitable.

While these arguments may seem legitimate, they are based on erroneous perceptions. Madrid (2010) contends that many educators perceive minority status as one of disadvantage, which sets the groundwork for lowered expectations. He further argues that Latino disengagement occurs for multiple reasons, teacher bias being of critical importance. Latino students enter school as equally engaged as White students, but soon discover that their aspirations are incongruent with their academic abilities (Goldsmith, 2004).

Latino parents are completely supportive of their children’s academic success, but because of their own low educational attainment, they lack the cognizance of maneuvering the educational system. They believe it is their moral obligation to raise children who are respectful and who behave ethically, but recognize their own deficiencies in academia and consequently defer to the expertise of teachers regarding academic skills (Madrid, 2010).

Latino parents wholeheartedly support the role educators play in the lives of their children and expect the same respect for their role. Educators must understand that a lack of formal education does not equate to a lack of knowledge. It is those educators who take the time to understand student and parental shortcomings, regardless of race, who affect the most positive change in student outcomes. Additionally, some argue, predominantly Latino or minority schools have been allocated additional funding to improve disparities, without success.

Federal, state and local governments cannot continue to simply dump money into these schools when it has consistently been proven to be ineffectual. There are predominantly White schools receiving less funding yet yielding much higher learning gains. Agreed, simply dumping money into underperforming schools is fiscally irresponsible. However, by investing money in correcting the disparate conditions and by requiring strict accountability, schools can become havens for equal educational opportunities for all children.

As a result of de facto segregation, a disproportionate number of Latinos and Blacks attend schools where poverty and overcrowding are the common denominators (Kozol, 2005). When compared to per pupil spending in predominantly minority schools and predominantly White schools, the discrepancy becomes glaringly obvious (Kozol, 2005). In schools populated by mostly Latino and Black students, instruction is conducted in dilapidated buildings lacking basic amenities such as operational plumbing and learning-conducive classrooms (Kozol, 2005).

In terms of resources, many of these schools do not offer access to science labs, media centers and libraries, which by default renders students unable to compete with their more affluent White peers (Madrid, 2010). Most disturbing is the number of underprepared and yet- to –be credentialed teachers employed in high Latino population schools (Madrid, 2010). The more highly trained and seasoned educators opt to teach in schools offering better pay, which happens to be in predominantly White, affluent schools (Gandara, 2000).

No, simply throwing money at underperforming schools is not the answer, but with appropriate regulations, it is a start. It is the belief of many that racism in schools is a thing of the past. Many argue that Latinos use the “race card” as a way of deflecting culpability in their own sub-standard academic performance. Historically, it is argued, racism was legally sanctioned through segregationist practices, now however racism is illegal, thus allowing every student equal opportunity and equal access to all facets of education.

Although it is true that the inherent racism embedded in segregation was outlawed in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, institutional racism continues (Garcia, 2001). The old brand of institutional racism came in the form of physical violence, abusive language and of legally sanctioned separation, but it has morphed into a less threatening figure. Now it comes in the form of lowered expectations, of less funding, of watered-down curriculum and of outdated materials (Madrid, 2010).

If it were simply a matter of using the “race card”, many Latinos would be utilizing it to change the abhorrent conditions in their schools, to ensure qualified instructors, and to demand equally rigorous instruction. In a 2002 interview featured in the North American Journal of Psychology, speaking on multicultural education, Sonia Nieto states, “It also means that teachers need to be aware of the ways in which our schools, rather than focusing on the potential that all children have for learning, have consistently failed some students because of their social identities.” (Gaedke & Shaugnessy, p. 479). It is time for true equality to permeate our schools and for opportunities to be disseminated uniformly. Although there are many instances of institutional racism currently festering in U. S schools, the time is ripe for squelching it. It behooves us as a nation to ensure that all children receive quality education imparted by exceptionally qualified instructors and in conditions that are conducive to equitable learning. Institutional racism breeds long-term effects that our children carry with them into the broader society.

The Latino population is growing exponentially in this country, which means that exponentially Latino children will be enrolling in public schools. This growth will require a systemic change in the way education is imparted to meet the needs of the changing demographics. Schools must discontinue viewing Latinos as inherently flawed but rather as fully capable and integral members of a broader society who will positively affect the success of this nation.

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