A new study suggests that prospective teachers may be more likely to misperceive Black children as angry compared to white children, which may undermine the education of Black youth.

The findings are published online in Emotion, an American Psychological Association (APA) journal.

While previous work has shown this effect in adults, this study is the first to show how anger bias based on race may extend to teachers and Black elementary and middle-school children, said lead researcher Amy G. Halberstadt, PhD, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

“This anger bias can have huge consequences by increasing Black children’s experience of not being ‘seen’ or understood by their teachers and then feeling like school is not for them,” she said. “It might also lead to Black children being disciplined unfairly and suspended more often from school, which can have long-term ramifications.”

The study involved 178 prospective teachers from education programs at three Southeastern universities who viewed short video clips of 72 children ages 9 to 13 years old. The children’s faces expressed one of six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise or disgust.

The clips were evenly divided among boys or girls and Black children or white children. The sample was not large enough to determine whether the race or ethnicity of the teachers made a difference in how they perceived the children.

The participants were somewhat accurate at identifying the children’s emotions, but they also made some mistakes that revealed patterns. Boys of both races were misperceived as angry more often than Black or white girls. Black boys and girls also were misperceived as angry at higher rates than white children, with Black boys eliciting the most anger bias.

Anger bias against Black children can lead to many negative outcomes. While controlling for other factors, earlier studies have shown that Black children are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than white children. Black children’s negative experiences at school may also contribute to the disparate achievement gap between Black and white youth that has been documented across the United States, Halberstadt said.

The participants also completed questionnaires assessing their implicit and explicit racial bias, but their scores on those tests did not impact the findings relating to Black children. However, those who displayed greater racial bias were less likely to misperceive white children as angry.

“Even when people are motivated to be anti-racist, we need to know the specific pathways by which racism travels, and that can include false assumptions that Black people are angry or threatening,” Halberstadt said.

“Those common racist misperceptions can extend from school into adulthood and potentially have fatal consequences, such as when police officers kill unarmed Black people on the street or in their own homes.”

Similar research with American adults has shown that anger is perceived more quickly than happiness in Black faces, while the opposite effect was found for white faces. Anger also is perceived more quickly and for a longer time in young Black men’s faces than young white men’s faces.

“Over the last few weeks, many people are waking up to the pervasive extent of systemic racism in American culture, not just in police practices but in our health, banking and education systems,” Halberstadt said. “Learning more about how these problems become embedded in our thought processes is an important first step.”

Prospective teachers in the study were primarily female (89%) and white (70%), mirroring the gender and race of most public-school teachers across the country. The research didn’t include enough people of color from any single race or ethnicity (Hispanic 9%, Asian 8%, Black 6%, Biracial 5%, Native American 1%, and Middle Eastern 1%) to analyze separate findings based on the race or ethnicity of the participants.

Source: American Psychological Association