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When Are Racial Disparities in Education the Result of Racial Discrimination? A Social Science Perspective


by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson — 2003

In this article I seek to answer the question, "When are racial disparities in education the result of racial discrimination?" To answer it I synthesize the social science research on racially correlated disparities in education. My review draws from the sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, history, and education literatures. I organize explanations into six categories: biological determinism, social structure, school organization and opportunities to learn, family background, culture, and the state. I arrive at three answers. The first is a definition: Racial discrimination in education arises from actions of institutions or individual state actors, their attitudes and ideologies, or processes that systematically treat students from different racial/ethnic groups disparately or inequitably. The second answer is that while distinguishing racial discrimination from disparities may be an interesting intellectual, legal, and statistical challenge, the conclusion probably is less meaningful than social scientists and policy makers might hope. The third answer follows from the first two. I propose the following reformulation of the original question: "When are racial disparities in education not due to discrimination?" I argue that the reformulated question is more likely to bring solutions to the race gap than the original one. Even if we conclude that discrimination does not cause racial disparities in education, we should not conclude that schools have no role in addressing them. If public schools do not address educational disparities, then who or what institution will?


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 6, 2003, p. 1052-1086
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11548, Date Accessed: 10/16/2017 11:58:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Roslyn Mickelson
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    ROSLYN ARLIN MICKELSON is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, Mickelson is investigating the equity effects of market-oriented reforms on students, particularly those from low-income and ethnic minority families. She is the author of ‘‘Subverting Swann: The Effects of First- and Second-Generation Segregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’’ (AERJ, 38: 215–252, 2001) and Children on the Streets of the Americas: Globalization, Homelessness, and Education in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba (Routledge, 2000).
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