How research gets race wrong

ImageIt is no news to anyone that the United States is becoming a place where whites are no longer the numerical majority of the population. California has been what is called a “majority-minority” state since 2000. What this seemingly nonsensical phrase means is that racial minorities are now the majority of the state’s population, and the rest of the nation is rapidly following suit. At the most basic level, minority and majority mean numbers. But this nomenclature can be leveraged, once modified, to more accurately pinpoint how populations are assigned greater and lesser status, power, and ‘normality.’ In this chapter, I draw attention to the assumptions, patterns and tendencies in research and policies based on educational research that actively minoritizes and majoritizes different populations in relationship not to number but to power. To do this, I will discuss what tends to be discussed and researched under these labels, what those discussions obscure, and how this language might be leveraged for more realistic grappling with systems of inequity. To begin, I return to mainstream reporting of majority and minority juxtapositions.

The challenge of diversity

When headlines of majority minority trends make news, they are accompanied by several pieces of misinformation. First is the idea that “for the first time,” these demographic shifts are occurring. In the May 26, 2012, Huffington Post story about racial demographic shifts that went viral (850,000 shares via social media in one week), the first sentence read, “For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S.” (Yin, 2012). It would be far more accurate, and more respectful as a bonus, to note that these demographic shifts are not “first time” events but the first time since European invasion of this land[1]. Following this headline and ones like it are usually some soundbites about the opportunities that can come with young people growing up with diversity all around them as well as the ongoing challenges that service sectors such as education and health face in addressing this diversity.

The framing of the increasing diversity brings with it immediate issues of historical accuracy. First, by silencing the founding of the nation that was premised on the initial and ongoing disappearing of native peoples, it is easier to treat diversity, and the “challenges” it brings with it, as a new set of challenges, even crises for the nation, potentially leading it astray from its purported ideals of equity, liberty, and meritocracy.

Any crisis to do with diversity is manufactured. It is manufactured not because there aren’t crises of equity and justice in the U.S., but because the crisis trope draws from a narrative that the nation has simply strayed from its core course instead of continuing a centuries-long path of racialization serving and buttressing stratification.

Unmasking myths of normal

Diversity itself has never been and continues to not be the core challenge to equity, whether it is framed as opportunity or problematic. The core issue, the one that prevents us from having a reality-based conversation about diversity, is how normal is defined and how, by default, everything everyone else is defined as abnormal, aberrant, deviant, or to use more politically correct but equally amnesic terms: at-risk, underrepresented, and minority. The core issue is that normalcy has been defined since European invasion as whiteness. Whiteness here means the practices and prestige afforded to those who phenotypically and culturally are recognized as white in society, a cultural space that “colonizes the definition of the normal and also the definition of other norms” (Haggis, Schech et al 1999, p. 169).


In the field of educational research, and indeed in most applied social science fields, there is a great deal of research studying why everyone else does not achieve at the levels of economically privileged white populations. Like other empirical studies in applied fields, this research closes its findings with implications, most often suggesting interventions for various populations who do not enjoy the safety, security and flourishing historically experienced by upper and

Imagemiddle class white populations. In fact, only the ‘at-risk,’ those in need of intervention, are studied. Those who are in the preferential spots in society are not studied, and because of that silencing, they are re-centered as the norm. Meanwhile, those struggling are spotlighted as the area of need, not a system that comprehensively functions to secure and refresh higher status for those already holding power and marginalize nondominant populations. For example, by studying how to help the sizeable immigrant populations in today’s schools to speak and write academic English fluently, we recenter that particular linguistic code as central and afford that status of ‘proper’ not just to the code but to those who speak it as their home language.

Instead of focusing attention on a system that is in fact predicated on such a stratification, we focus [pathologizing] attention on the lower strata. While this pathologizing research pattern is in and of itself fundamentally flawed, these practices also function to racially name and statically fix populations. In other words, the designations of ‘minority’ and at-riskness is part of how race is constructed and serves to stratify society.

For example, in addition to fueling billions of dollars of research into how to “close the achievement gap,” this framing and focus on ‘at-riskness’ has, in tandem, buffeted policies such as No Child Left Behind that required states to disaggregate standardized test score results according to race and ethnicity. The logic was that by gathering explicit data on achievement rates according to race, schools and school districts could respond better. In fact, this single move from NCLB could have made a significant contribution in forcing this system to be equitable through an explicit accounting of its tendencies, if (and this is a big IF) the results were interpreted and filtered through an understanding that United States education has been based on colonialism, capitalism and the privileging of some intertwined with the disenfranchisement of others. In other words, if the scores were disaggregated by race with an understanding of how racism is systemic, we might have been better poised to address the system itself. But, instead, the default interpretation of race-stratified achievement scores has been to focus on what is wrong with the populations not scoring higher. The implication is that white is normal, correct, desirable, and those scoring below this are deficient, at-risk, and in need of intervention. What also happens is that by not looking at the processes in schooling that privilege certain cultural groups over others, and only communicating test score results as they relate to racial categories, race as a static category is calcified.

In a protracted expression of these assumptions, the state of Alabama, in June 2013, released its “Plan 2020,” in which the state’s schools will be held accountable for different populations achieving at different levels (Smith, 2013). More specifically, in order for schools to be found ‘adequate,’ under the new state law, third graders need to pass the math exam, but passing is determined by racial group. The percentages needed for third-graders to pass math in their subgroups for 2013 are:

 93.6 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students.

 91.5 percent of white students.

 90.3 percent of American Indian students.

 89.4 percent of multiracial students.

got privilege?


 85.5 percent of Hispanic students.

 82.6 percent of students in poverty.

 79.6 percent of English language-learner students.

 79 percent of black students.
There is just a whole lot wrong with this, including the lack of additional resources that schools with larger proportions of so-labeled struggling students, but let’s focus for the moment on how this policy actively racializes populations, and more specifically racially majoritizes and minoritizes them. 61.7 percent of special needs students.

As should be widely known but is dysfunctionally instead widely forgotten and ignored, race is a construct. It serves social, political, and economic, largely separatist and colonial purposes. There is nothing biologically true about racial categories and therefore aligning race with academic standards is patently irresponsible, even dangerous.  Without a more rigorous understanding of the processes of racialization, policies like Alabama’s, and in fact myriad studies, policies, and practices treat race and racial categories as static. In so doing they actively racially minoritize and majoritize populations. By aligning African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans with lower expectations, these policies have refreshed a minority status based on race (used rampantly as a noun) and they have also obscured the active processes of racialization as it connects to power (Perry, 2010). This is actually how racism functions. For every racial category, there is a waxing over details and variance within the group. This generalized categorization also promotes an ahistorical perception of racial groups and their academic proclivities. This is, in a nutshell, the definition of racism.

But isn’t benefitting the Asian kids? Not quite. Let’s imagine a beginning teacher, fresh from a teacher preparation program. This teacher sees these groups and cutoff marks, telling her what to expect from and how far to push different students. How does this teacher begin to understand the ways in which the model minority status of Asian Americans, created in the 1960s to distract attention from the civil rights movement, is being perpetuated here? Where might she learn about the ways that race was first constituted in immigration and anti-terrorism laws in order to maintain Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, and Indian Americans (the ones from India, thanks Columbus) as economically tethered to but legally excluded from American citizenship rights (Ngai, 2004)? Hrabowski (2012) has made the point that wealthy nations with large populations, like China, can, just like any other nation, only comprise 7% of U.S. green cards each year. With such a large population, why would we be surprised that those who are already privileged by social class in their home countries would also succeed here? And yet, the racial category and 3rd grade math score chart obscures all of that, much more simplistically community majority and minority status to various racial groups. It also obscures the fact that the overwhelming majority of this nation’s wealth and political power is in the hands of white men, not Asians.

There are two conjoined disservices happening through these kinds of racial designations. First is that race is a static enough category to be aligned with performance on standardized tests, and second that these scores are not more accurately understood as the products of institutionalized practices that segregate and sort according to race and class.

Sadly, the policy from Alabama is not an outlier, to use a psychometric term. It is actually aptly representative of myriad research and policy that, in turn, valorizes and pathologizes white and nonwhite populations. By not defining race first as a construct and then looking to the societal mechanisms that racialize in order to privilege and disenfranchise populations, research that investigates society and race is epistemologically hobbled from the start.

How we name the “problem”

In working with doctoral students and as a reader and writer of educational research, there is often a great deal of consternation of how to name populations, those that we decide should be named. First, remember that by not focusing peoples’ social locations in a larger system, much of educational research proceeds with an implicit assumption that the system itself is largely intact, and attention and energy is best paid to those who are struggling or at-risk of pain and injury in this system. In fact, ‘at-risk’ and ‘struggling’ are two of the most common terms used when describing populations who are owed an education debt (Ladson-Billings, 2009). As Eve Tuck reminds us throughout much of her work (2009; 2013; 2014), it’s important to pay attention to, surface if necessary, our theories of change in social science research. Tuck has made explicit the ways in which a damages aperture on Native populations can both corrode indigenous peoples’ sense of agentic self as well as cauterize the possibilities of research that might reach farther than minimizing damage. The language that we choose to frame research questions is one of the places where we can see the operating theory of change. Because this is a sorely under-theorized, and Tuck argues sub- or dys-conscious, aspect of social science research, researchers are not required to explicitly theorize not just what is wrong with society but how their research seeks to address this reality. When left unaddressed or superficial, the theories of change reach for very little change and become part of how populations are racially minoritized and majoritized.

For example, one of the labels used to name racially minoritized populations is ‘under-represented.’ Underrepresented minorities are studied in sanctioned research and encouraged to apply for jobs in majority white institutions. In research that names populations in this way, there is often a focus on why and how to address the lower numbers of racial minorities on campus, in the workplace. But the theory of change is flawed at best. Purportedly, the theory is that if racial and ethnic groups, currently underrepresented, had more representation in the overall numbers, then the institution would be more just. Again, the underlying belief is that the system itself is fine and the problem is that there has been a straying from the core design or lack of keeping up with demographic change, resulting in a disproportionate representation of Euro-descendant males. If there were a more robust theorization about status, stratification, power, and society, the nomenclature and theory would reach beyond representation of populations.

At best, it is a modernist understanding of race and individuals’ practices, and at worst, it is naïve and an arguably complicit capitulation to the social reproduction of power in racist stratified societies. Increasingly, scholarship anchored in fields like critical race studies (Solorzano & Yosso, 2009), intersectionality (e.g., Hill, 2009), and third world feminism (Ahmed, 2011) has documented the ways in which racial and ethnic minorities encounter subtle yet powerful gatekeeping from any form of institutional power as engaged by their white counterparts.

Terms like dispossessed, marginalized, and minoritized, reckon more with the societal processes that result in social locations. In these terms, we see a theory of why some people experience much more risk, pain, violence, suffering in society that others – they have been acted upon by the society. In Ruglis and Fine’s (2009) work on circuits of dispossession, the source of this adjective for naming low-income populations, particularly youth of color, they take the step of naming the multiple interlocking ways in which society orchestrates dispossession. This is also the key point of recent work like Michelle Alexander’s firebrand analysis of the prison industrial complex, The New Jim Crow (2010). Alexander’s point is not just that war on drugs succeeded in incarcerating black and brown populations at rates completely disproportionate to both population and actual drug use. Her core point is that through the entangled networks of criminal justice, incarceration, housing, healthcare and employment, these men and women caught in the snare of a racist suite of policies are verily excluded from basic human rights of health and safety. With such an understanding, using a term like ‘at-risk’ or ‘underrepresented’ seems woefully insufficient and a bit ludicrous. Terms like disenfranchised, dispossessed, and marginalized contend better with the systemic forces that seek to stratify some while privileging others. They make more explicit not just what race might individuals might be assigned to in society but, more to the point, how society makes use of those categories.

However, these terms, in keeping with Tuck’s points about damages-based research, run the risk of not allowing for the agency found within individuals and populations. As a female of color whose youth straddled both working and owning classes, whether I am called a minority or dispossessed, I would feel more than a bit truncated. What gets truncated is the agency, the personal experience of those categories, and of course, the variance within these categories.

Categories are, of course, part of how we simply exist, particularly in logo-centric post-industrial societies. They are part of our way of being, doing, and knowing the world. However, with categories so central to our daily lives, we should at least be more rigorous about what categories we use, and how we use them. As is often the case in discussions like these that surface the underlying problems and deficient theories in nomenclature, there is a desire for the ‘right’ term or category to use. There is no right term, at least not right now. In fact, this desire for a single right term smacks a bit of technicism, a desire for a particular practice that, if executed correctly, contains in and of itself justification, rightness, or even more boldly put, truth. What is needed here is research that is not technicist but that is humanistic, meaning that above all desires for objectivity, validity, and reliability is a constant concern for what is just, what is needed, informed by data based in reality, not malignant constructs.

Read more…

Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press: Jackson, TN.

Fine, M., & Ruglis, J. (2009). Circuits and consequences of dispossession: The racialized realignment of the public sphere for U.S. youth. Transforming Anthropology, 70(1), 20–33.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought. New York: Routledge.

Hrabowski, F. (2013). Raising a Generation of Achievers in Math, Science and Technology: It Takes a Village. Lecture provided April 4, 2013.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.

Ngai, M. (2005). Impossible subjects: Illegal aliens and the making of modern America. Princeton University Press.

Perry, T. (2010). More beautiful and more terrible: The embrace and transcendence of racial inequality in the United States. NYU Press.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, 1(1), 1-40.

[1] This kind of erasure of the ongoing of Native peoples is in fact part of what maintains a settler colonial state. See Tuck & Wang, 2012.

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