A not-so-level playing field: racial and economic divides cast doubt on the American dream
As racial and ethnic tensions rise in the United States, a new study points to the problems exacerbated by the racial divide within American classrooms.
The study looks at the issue of meritocracy - the idea that if you work hard enough or have enough talent, you can succeed regardless of your race, ethnicity or economic background.
Meritocracy is, in essence, the basis of the American dream — the notion that all individual merit is fairly rewarded.
Believing that the system is fair when you may be experiencing otherwise may actually have some negative ramifications for your development.- Erin Godfrey, NYU
The study is published this month in the journal Child Development, and surveyed a group of middle-school students in Arizona. The students were diverse in makeup, with 91 percent of them being minorities - half of them Latino.
Erin Godfrey is an assistant professor of applied psychology in the Psychology and Social Intervention program at New York University and is the lead author on the study. As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the notion of the American dream can have a negative impact on students from minority backgrounds.
"Believing that the system is fair when you may be experiencing otherwise may actually have some negative ramifications for your development," says Godfrey.
Is the system fair?
As part of a larger study, the students were asked a series of questions as they entered Grade 6, including general questions involving their ethnic identity, their behaviour in school and their classroom experiences. A series of follow up questions were asked as they finished Grade 7.
Godfrey's questions were more pointedly about the U.S. education system.
"We asked very basic, broad questions like: is the U.S. system fair? Does everyone who tries hard get ahead? Do you think that all people can make it? And we asked a series of questions like that that tapped into what we call their system-justifying beliefs, or the degree to which they want to justify that the system is fair," explains Godfrey.
Going into Grade 6, most of the students questioned believed in the idea of meritocracy, and that hard word would be rewarded.
They're starting to see things happen that indicate that they and their group aren't being treated the same way. Or maybe don't have the same opportunities that other kids have.- Erin Godfrey, NYU
"And then we also asked them questions about their behaviour in school, their risky behaviour … and also their self-esteem and some of their depressive symptoms."
What Godfrey found was that the more that students felt that the system was fair, the better their behaviour in Grade 6.
"The interesting part is how that changed over time," says Godfrey.
However, by the end of Grade 7, the students who most believed in a fair system experienced declining classroom behaviour and declining self-esteem.
"I think what's happening is that everyone has this desire to believe that the system is fair. It makes us feel more confident about things, more certain, more secure," explains Godfrey. "But the idea is that that can be bad for people for whom the system really isn't fair."
Godfrey notes that the students in her study were economically disadvantaged [and that] most of them are racial-ethnic minorities.
"During this time they're sort of realizing that hey, maybe the system isn't so fair. They're starting to see things happen that indicate that they and their group aren't being treated the same way. Or maybe don't have the same opportunities that other kids have," says Godfrey.
Ramifications of injustices
She says that believing that the system is fair while seeing these inequalities is creating psychological conflict. Godfrey goes on to say that that distress is a predictor, or can lead to negative changes in behaviour.
When asked if the students might have changes in behaviour simply because they are going through puberty, Godfrey says that's a factor, but that the point is that the students who had the biggest change in behaviour were also the students who most believed in the system being fair.
"You go into your average under-resourced school in the U.S. and you'll see messages of meritocracy everywhere,- Erin Godfrey, NYU
Godfrey's study involved a small sample of 250 students, and she acknowledges that it may not be indicative of the general U.S. population. She hopes that broader studies can be done to further address the issue.
"What I will say is that this is a context that is very familiar, at least across the U.S. So there are a lot of states and cities like the one where the study was conducted, where they are gateway cities, there's immigration happening, there's a debate around immigration … so the types of experiences and the types of thoughts that kids have ... are probably similar," says Godfrey.
Godfrey hopes that, given the results of her study, more attention will be paid to the messaging delivered to children in schools across the United States.
"You know, you go into your average under-resourced school in the U.S. and you'll see messages of meritocracy everywhere," says Godfrey.
"I understand why that's an interesting and important notion to want to instill in kids to give them hope, especially kids who are disadvantaged. But the research suggests [the messages] can actually be deleterious. That actually can be bad."
Godfrey says the better approach is to more deeply consider the social injustices that kids are experiencing, and to encourage kids to change the things that they see.
"Fostering that kind of critical reflection and that kind of action is actually a better way to go than to teach kids that the system is fair when, in fact, their experiences are telling them it's not."
To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Erin Godfrey, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.