Stress, Race, Class, and School
by Jonathan Glater
With the advent of the new administration in Washington, levels of stress are rising for members of minority groups of various kinds – religions minorities, Latinos, African Americans, recent immigrants, to name just a few. This has gotten me thinking about research on the effects of stress that perhaps has gone underappreciated in legal academy.
In a provocative article that came out in the American Psychologist this fall, a team of researchers at Northwestern University has suggested that stress related to race contributes to differences in academic performance between students who belong to racial minority groups and students who do not. This paper is behind a pay wall for now, but much of the research that builds up to it is not, and a PowerPoint presentation that Prof. Adam used presenting the underlying data at Stanford last year is available here.
The article, Psychological and Biological Responses to Race-Based Social Stress as Pathways to Disparities in Educational Outcomes, begins with a concise survey of research on differences in academic performance among different racial/ethnic groups. Disparities in academic performance track differences in class, defined by parental education and/or by income level, as well as race, but class does not explain all the difference. The authors, a team consisting of Dorainne J. Levy, Jennifer Heissel, Jennifer A. Richeson, and Emma K. Adam, propose that response to stress may contribute to the explanation.
Psychological stressors, including stereotype threat and perceived discrimination, affect levels of cortisol, a hormone, in the body. Sustained and elevated levels of cortisol can adversely affect executive functions, including attention and memory – both critical to good academic performance. Race-based stress may also affect sleep patterns and less, or lower-quality, sleep also affects academic performance adversely.
The analysis and argument of the article builds upon a prior research project that involved all of the authors and Education Law Prof Blog: