For 15-year-old Zion Agostini, the start of each school day is a new occasion to navigate a minefield of racial profiling. From an early age, walking home from elementary school with his older brother, Agostini took note of the differential treatment police gave to black people in his community: “I [saw] people get stopped … get harassed … get arrested for minor offenses.” Almost a decade later, Agostini said he now faces the same treatment as a sophomore at Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “Me being a black male, I’m more likely to be stopped and frisked by a cop. Then, [I’m] going to school with more cops … [messing] with me at 7 in the morning.”
“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.”
A recent study from Northwestern University corroborates Agostini’s experience, suggesting that the stress of racial discrimination may partly explain the persistent gaps in academic performance between some nonwhite students, mainly black and Latino youth, and their white counterparts. The team of researchers found that the physiological response to race-based stressors—be it perceived racial prejudice, or the drive to outperform negative stereotypes—leads the body to pump out more stress hormones in adolescents from traditionally marginalized groups. This biological reaction to race-based stress is compounded by the psychological response to discrimination or the coping mechanisms youngsters develop to lessen the distress. What emerges is a picture of black and Latino students whose concentration, motivation, and, ultimately, learning is impaired by unintended and overt racism.
– Melinda Anderson
Read more: How the Stress of Racism Affects Learning