Numerous articles, essays and studies have been written on racism and policing; the need for reform, accountability and transparency. Continuous coverage of questionable shootings of black men, women and children by police has provided a platform for not only the hopes of black communities in terms of justice and equitable treatment, but also their fears. Fear is a very real thing. It is also a stressful thing. How that fear/stress affects black adults has also been the subject of articles, essays and studies. But what of youth/children? A recent study has taken a look at how the stress of racism affects learning and contributes to the achievement gap:
Emma Adam, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern and the study’s senior author, said prior research had established racial differences in levels of cortisol—a hormone that increases when the body is stressed—between black and white youth, and linked this to the impact of discrimination. In the current research review, she and her co-authors set out to connect the dots. “We had observed these [dissimilarities] and knew that sleep and stress hormones have strong implications for cognition … we also knew that there was a strong racial gap in academic attainment.”
Two sources of stress encountered by black and Latino students and examined in the report are perceived discrimination—the perception that you will be treated differently or unfairly because of your race—and stereotype threat, the stress of confirming negative expectations about your racial or ethnic group. According to the paper, among this population of students, perceived discrimination from teachers was “related to lower grades, less academic motivation … and less persistence when encountering an academic challenge.” The study also found that the anxiety surrounding the stereotype of academic inferiority undermined students performing academic tasks.
Over time, Adam said, children develop strategies to reduce the racial stressors, but these, too, have consequences for academic success. Students might devalue the importance of doing well on tests or decide that doing well in school isn't a part of their identity—“If you don’t care, then you're not going to feel as stressed in those academic circumstances,” she said, “but obviously that [affects] your performance.”
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