The Psychological Effects of Race and Class

Tuesday, November 17, 2015
The Cook Center

The psychological effects of race and socioeconomic status served as the theme for a one-day conference at Duke on Monday, hosted by the Global Inequality Research Initiative, or GIRI. The conference, “Telling Identity Stories,” featured three keynote presentations by experts on education, race and gender.

Stephanie Rowley, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, disputed the popular notion that black boys are in trouble despite the sheet amount of attention given to helping them succeed, including the White House initiative, My Brother’s Keeper.

“There are contexts where black boys are doing well,” Rowley said. “The research tends to focus on the negative.”

Rowley said 72 percent of black boys who qualify for advanced placemat courses are not enrolling in them.

“This suggests there is a potential that is not being tapped,” Rowley said. “People aren’t seeing black boys as the sort of people who take these courses.”

A keynote address, “#SayHerName: Toward a Gender Inclusive Movement for Black Lives,” by Brittney Cooper, focused on respectability politics. Cooper, an assistant professor of women’s studies and gender and Africana studies at Rutgers University, discussed how society imposes standards of behavior on black women, queer and transgendered folks. She upended the myth that black girls and women are indomitable, superhuman and much stronger than their male counterparts.

“Black girls are suspended six times as much as white girls. Black girls have a higher instance of racially disparate treatment in schools,” Cooper said, citing the example of the high school girl in South Carolina who was attacked by a school resource officer for using a cell phone in class. Some critics said the girl should have obeyed the rules.

“We learn that … femininity doesn’t offer them protection. Impoliteness is not the cause. Stop demanding that,” Cooper said.

Other topics discussed included the effects of first name bias, presented by Toni Kenthirarajah, an assistant professor in Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. “The point is not for us all to take on Anglo names. It’s important to understand the mechanisms and why (the bias) is occurring so we can intervene,” she said.

Laura Smart Richman and Makeba Parramore Wilbourn, both assistant professors in Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke, shared their research. Richman’s research underscored the health ramifications of discrimination on people of color, while Wilbourn shared her findings on ebonics, “acting white” and black student achievement.

“There’s nothing wrong with a kid using the language of home,” Wilbourn said. “Instead of thinking of language as proper, educators should train them in code switching” and how to use “whatever language is the most advantageous.”

Undergraduate students in the GIRI course “Race, Class and Psychology” gave a comparative analysis of racial tensions in the U.S. and South Africa. They determined that the circumstance in each country is too dissimilar to replicate successful remedies. The class is co-taught by Richman, Nina Smith, an assistant professor of human sciences at North Carolina Central University, and Salimah El-Amin, a senior research associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. El-Amin organized the student-focused conference.

Other student presentations included:

  • Alive and Uninjured- A Review of Crisis Intervention Training -- Ajenai Clemmons
  • Racial Gaps in Educational Attainment: A Global Comparison -- Fope Idowu, Alekhya Sure, Aarti Asrani
  • The School to Prison Pipeline -- Taylor Doty
  • Health Zoning Paradox -- Kristen Cooksey Stowers

Racism, she said, can serve to unite people of color in struggle. But, she said, “we must help young people with strategy. And parents must scrutinize, challenge and be vigilant in working with schools. Don’t assume your child will have a positive experience at a ‘good’ school.”Keisha Bentley-Edwards, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin gave the final keynote on “When Racism Unites and Divides: Social Class, Black Racial Cohesion and Dissonance.”