Date March 1, 2021
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Brown sociologist investigates racial gap in treatment of students

As a 2020 William T. Grant Scholar, Brown sociologist Jayanti Owens embarks on a five-year research plan to study how race impacts teachers’ perceptions of student behavior.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When trying to understand why Black and Latino students are disproportionately suspended and expelled compared to white students, Jayanti Owens wanted to try a new approach.

Owens, an assistant professor of sociology at Brown’s Watson Institute, had pored over previous studies that had thoroughly documented the disparities and tested how differences in disciplinary policies at predominantly Black schools and the behavior of Black students could explain the discipline gap.

But the research was often focused on specific geographic areas, and Owens wondered how much those hypotheses accounted for racial gaps across different populations and groups at a broader societal level. Informed by literature and personal experience, she also wanted to test a third theory: Was it true that teachers punish Black and Latino children more severely than white children for the same behavior? And how much did that differential treatment impact the gap?

Owens was shocked to learn the extent of the answer. Based on her findings, teacher treatment accounts for 46% of the Black-white racial gap in school suspensions and expulsions among children 5 to 9 years old.

I’m really hopeful that this moment could lead to substantial change. I hope that doing this work in this moment means this work will be taken a lot more seriously.

Jayanti Owens Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs and Sociology

“Something that I have long observed, anecdotally in life, is that oftentimes students of color are assumed to behave worse,” Owens said. “But the reality, in the finding that we came to, is that there are racial differences in behavior, but they don’t explain why Black students are being suspended at higher rates. There is something else going on.”

A year after her initial findings, the pandemic and one of the largest social movements in history have further highlighted racial disparities and racism in America, and Owens is again investigating how those issues play out in schools from a new angle.

As a 2020 William T. Grant Scholar, Owens recently embarked on a five-year research plan to dig deeper and ask a new question: How does race impact teachers’ perceptions of student behavior?

Although her previous study examined teacher treatment, it assumed teachers’ evaluations of student behavior were accurate.

But in a society often characterizing Black and Latino students as dangerous, “it is entirely possible that teachers are imbuing those stereotypes, unconsciously or consciously, in the process of observing students’ behaviors in the first place,” Owens said. If so, a teacher could perceive identical misbehavior more negatively if exhibited by a Black or Latino as opposed to white student.

To test that hypothesis, Owens will record the perceptions of teachers from across the United States as they observe video vignettes of identical, routine misbehavior portrayed by actors of varying racial backgrounds. The behavior, children and teachers’ reaction to that behavior within the video, the props, and even the clothing will be the same in each vignette. “The only thing that differs,” she said, “is the race of the student.”

Following this investigation, Owens will take it a step further to design and test interventions that offset the mechanisms that contribute the most to racial gaps.

The unprecedented approach is nothing new for Owens — it’s a thread that runs through most of her work.

“She was always interested in looking at things from just a slightly different point of view,” said Swarthmore College Provost and sociologist Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who also advised Owens’s senior thesis.

Owens’s published research on the racial discipline gap “begins to subvert some of the unintentional victim-blaming research that is out there,” Willie-LeBreton said, referring to research that focuses solely on how students in marginalized communities differ from their white, middle-class counterparts.

Mentors like Willie-LeBreton inspired Owens as an undergraduate at Swarthmore and encouraged her to investigate disparities Owens studied, witnessed and experienced first-hand.

“They really took seriously that what I and many others had been experiencing is grounded in an actual social process that can be studied through social science,” she said. Growing up in a predominately white community, Owens said she saw the “ways in which subtle forms of bias and discrimination manifested” against non-white people in her community, saying those encounters often happened with well-intentioned people.

From those observations and encouragement from mentors, she knew that racism and racial disparities were themes she wanted to explore further.

Though Owens decided to use her experience to inform research and believes increased faculty diversity is important, she worries about pigeonholing people of color into diversity work. “I don’t think that it is the right strategy to solely target faculty of color for questions that our society and everyone in it should be asking,” Owens said. “And that includes white people.”

During this time of racial reckoning, she is glad to see a larger group of people paying attention to disparities that she has spent her life witnessing and documenting.

“I’m really hopeful that this moment could lead to substantial change,” she said. “I hope that doing this work in this moment means this work will be taken a lot more seriously.”