How the Stress of Racism Affects Learning
A new study shows that the pressures associated with discrimination contribute to the achievement gap.
The strain of these interactions is heightened by the daily routine of passing through a metal detector, emptying pockets, and removing clothing that frequently makes him late to his first-period class. “The fact is now I’m [tardy] because I’m being scanned four times because of the metal in my necklace or my keys. I missed whatever [the teacher] was explaining … a lot goes on in [chemistry], and because of that I'm behind.” All of this combined takes a toll on his schoolwork, he said. “It does make it extremely hard to focus on the classwork … You're upset, or sad, or just emotional about what just happened. It takes a while to settle.”
Emma Adam, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern and the study’s senior author, said prior research had established racial differences in levels of cortisol—a hormone that increases when the body is stressed—between black and white youth, and linked this to the impact of discrimination. In the current research review, she and her co-authors set out to connect the dots. “We had observed these [dissimilarities] and knew that sleep and stress hormones have strong implications for cognition … we also knew that there was a strong racial gap in academic attainment.”