Chapter 12

The Architecture of Inequality: Sex and Gender

Micro-Macro Connection


Claude Steele

Racial Stereotypes and Educational Performance

A lot of scholarly work examines how racial stereotypes manifest themselves in daily life and where they come from, but less attention has been paid to how they affect the person who is the object of the stereotypical thinking. According to social psychologist Claude Steele, stereotypes function in the institutional setting of universities much like self-fulfilling prophecies. 1 They may account for why some groups—blacks and Latino/as, in particular—don't fare as well academically as others.

Steele became interested in how stereotypes affect students when he found that 80% of black students at the University of Michigan, some of whom were extremely bright, were enrolled in remedial programs. 2 Even with the extra help, however, their dropout rate far exceeded that of white students.

Steele wondered whether many capable students were dropping out not because they were innately intellectually inferior 3 but because the institutional practice of enrolling them in remedial classes was essentially stereotyping them as "dumb." When people are confronted with a negative stereotype about their intellectual skills before they take tests, they tend to perform according to the stereotype. 4 Whether they believe the stereotype or not, the mere threat that they might be judged against it is enough to hurt academic performance.

Steele hypothesized that the gap between whites and blacks on standardized tests—which among college-bound seniors in 2004 was over 200 points on the SAT 6—would disappear if blacks were taught that they have the same academic potential as whites.

To test his ideas, Steele gave groups of black and white students at Stanford University portions of the Graduate Record Exam. In the section asking for personal information, half the tests asked the students to indicate their race; the other half did not. Steele found that the blacks who were asked to identify their race scored significantly lower than the whites who were asked their race. In contrast, blacks and whites who were not asked to identify their race scored about the same.

In another experiment, blacks who were told they were taking a test that would evaluate their intellectual skills scored much lower than whites. Blacks who were told the test didn't evaluate intellectual ability scored the same as whites.

Steele has put his ideas into practice in a first-year transition program at Stanford. Incoming students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds participate in workshops and seminars about adjustment to college. The emphasis of the program is on intellectual challenge, not remediation. Students are not led to believe that they are in the program to compensate for some perceived intellectual deficiency. He has found that black students in the program earn slightly better grades than white students who aren't in the program. 7

Steele's research shows how long-standing and well-meaning practices of large educational institutions, such as remedial education programs, may unintentionally harm the very peop

1 Steele, C. 1997. A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613629.

2 Gose, B. 1995, August 18. Test scores and stereotypes. Chronicle of Higher Education.

3 Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. 1994. The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New York: Free Press.

4 Steele, C. 1997. A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613629; Steele, C., & Aronson, J. 1995. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797811.

5 National Center for Fair and Open Testing. 2004. 2004 college-bound seniors test scores: SAT . . Accessed December 6, 2004.

6 Gose, B. 1995, August 18. Test scores and stereotypes. Chronicle of Higher Education

Study Site for David M. Newman Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life, Sixth Edition
Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, an imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.
Available online:
Created January 2006
Copyright 2006 by SAGE Publications, Inc.; all rights reserved