has Scores to Settle NY Times Magazine
17 Sept 1995
Why do African-Americans score
significantly worse on standardized tests than whites?
"Our idea," Steele says to
the group, "was that whenever black students concentrate on an explicitly
scholastic task, they risk confirming their group's negative stereotype.
This extra burden, in situations with certain characteristics, can be enough
to drag down their performance. We call this burden stereotype vulnerability."
In the first experiment Steele
describes, he and Joshua Aronson from the University of Texas gave two
groups of black and white Stanford undergraduates a test composed of the
most difficult verbal-skills questions from the Graduate Record Exam. Before
the test, one group was told that the purpose of the exercise was only
to research "psychological factors involved in solving verbal problems,"
while the other group was told that the exam was "a genuine test of your
verbal abilities and limitations."
"This is what we found," Steele
says, placing a transparency onto the overhead projector. As the information
in the bar charts sinks in, people sit up in their chairs. There are several
audible "hmmms," a muffled "wow!" Then a professor at the back of the room
asks: "Did you give the groups the same test?"
Steele smiles and says, "Yes."
The question speaks to the startling nature of the results. As the graphs
indicate, the blacks who thought they were simply solving problems performed
as well as the whites (who performed equally in both situations). However,
the group of black students who labored under the belief that the test
could measure their intellectual potential performed significantly worse
than all the other students.
Steele's idea of stereotype
vulnerability is not that the student consciously or unconsciously accepts
the stereotype (as other social scientists have speculated), but rather,
as Steele says, that they have to contend with this whisper of inferiority
at the moment when their mental abilities are most taxed. In trying not
to give credence to the stereotype, Steele theorizes, the students may
redouble their efforts only to work too quickly or inefficiently. The cues
that can spark the vulnerability can be subtle-like suggesting the test
can measure ability or making students mark down their races before the
test begins. While there might be no perceptible bias in a given test or
in the test-taking situation, an exam might still be weighted against blacks
because the possibility of performing badly has a more devastating meaning.
As Steele goes on to describe
his experiments-more than a dozen over the last four years-the audience
remains riveted. With his colleague Steve Spencer at Hope College, he has
run eight additional experiments showing that stereotype vulnerability
can negatively affect women who believe a given math test shows "gender
differences." The negative impact of stereotype vulnerability has even
appeared in white men who took a difficult math test after being told that
Asians tended to outperform whites on that particular exam.
At Michigan, Steele found a
puzzle in the statistics on the performance of black students that drew
his interest. According to university data, no matter how well qualified
a black student was at a given level, he or she was more likely than an
equally qualified white student to fall behind at the next level of achievement.
Steele figured that the more well-known factors like discrimination, bad
schools, broken homes and the poverty and crime that disproportionately
damage black communities couldn't fully account for the plight of highly
motivated, middle-class African-Americans. "Black students with 1,300 S.A.T.
scores were going home from college with 2.4 G.P.A.'s," Steele says. "When
I realized that the smartest black students were having these terrible
troubles, I figured something else was going on."
After talking with students,
Steele decided that the answer was not a lack of a desire to succeed. Nor
could he find significant overt or covert racism on the part of the school.
He began formulating theories on how the ebbs and flows of anxiety and
confidence that all students experience might be exaggerated in black students
by the deeper currents in a racially focused society.
As Steele describes it, stereotype
vulnerability is a "patient predator" that affects black students not just
in testing situations, but in every area of their academic lives. "At each
new proving ground the problem can re-emerge," Steele says. "The student
who has risen above the stereotype in high school-proving to everyone that
he is smart-goes off to college, where a new level of performance is expected."
Eventually, even minor failures-a
lapse in grammar while talking to a professor-can discourage. At some point,
students may begin to "disidentify" or pull away from the challenge of
But Steele doesn't just want
to explain away the overall poor showing of black students. "One of the
thrills of doing this research," Steele says, "is that I can provide an
optimistic take without being political-it's in the results." The results
he's referring to are not the ones that demonstrate that stereotype vulnerability
exists, but those that show that it disappears with the subtlest of changes.
Take away the situational clues that make the setting racially charged
(like having to identify race before the exam), and the vulnerability can
vanish from the student's performance. If this vulnerability can be consistently
kept at bay, Steele says, the downward spiral may never start.
Steele says that those who
have seized on the apparent willful pulling away of the black student have
unfairly focused on the very end of a long descent that can begin with
a vulnerability so subtle that not even the student can identify its origin.
"These kids want to make it,"
Steele says. "These kids are in their dorm rooms confronting the beast
of their deepest fears. Instead of telling them that it is their responsibility
to overcome the psychology that they are feeling in their gut, let's get
rid of the beast."
"I think much of what is mistaken
for racial animosity in America today is really stereotype vulnerability,"
he says. "Imagine a black and a white man meeting for the first time. Because
the black person knows the stereotypes of his group, he attempts to deflect
those negative traits, finding ways of trying to communicate, in effect,
'Don't think of me as incompetent.' The white, for his part, is busy deflecting
the stereotypes of his group: 'Don't think of me as a racist.' Every action
becomes loaded with the potential of confirming the stereotype, and you
end up with two people struggling with these phantoms they're only half
aware of. The discomfort and tension is often mistaken for racial animosity."
The parallel is instructive.
The white person who has felt how much energy it takes to communicate the
message "I am not the racist person you might think I am" can perhaps also
understand how distracting such an effort might be during a standardized
test. Following the idea of white vulnerability, he says he can even explain
something of the current frustration with racial issues.
"Many whites are just like
the black kid in the school situation," Steele says. "When racial issues
become frustrating-when there are setbacks -- the suspicions about their
sincerity re-emerges. If they feel that, in continuing to try, they will
only give more evidence to the conclusion that they are really racist they'll
eventually want to withdraw. That is what is happening: the whole thing
has become too loaded, and we're seeing whites walking away.