The Impact of Discrimination on Education

The Impact of Discrimination on Education

Bruna Souza, Staff Writer

We all crave knowledge. Education is meant to enable us to gain the knowledge and skills we need and desire in order to succeed. Yet, we are often prevented from receiving this opportunity to its fullest. Why?  Well, there are many reasons why the education system fails. Some of it has to do with poverty and a  lack of vital infrastructure provided by the government. However, systemic racism and discrimination are located right at the center of this failure. 

Let’s take a look at the history of racism in the United States. The first ship with enslaved people arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619. Over 400 years later, the U.S.  still struggles to establish equality. For centuries, black people weren’t allowed to receive any education. They were deprived of it, to keep them from understanding how policies passed by the government were directed toward the institution of slavery and oppression. Slavery wasn’t abolished until more than 200 years after that first ship arrived, but then, of course, there was segregation. After slavery was abolished, the idea of “separate but equal” was adopted in order to emphasize that black people weren’t allowed to be treated as equals to white people.  You may recognize a theory called “social Darwinism.” Social Darwinism is the theory that individuals are all subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection. This theory became highly accepted in the 19th century in order to excuse slavery by claiming that some groups of people are superior to others. The history of racism is precisely the foundation of discrimination within our education system. 

So, is it too much to ask that our education system reflect a realistic interpretation of the impact racism has had and still has in our nation? Is it too much to ask that students of every color feel accepted and safe in their school environment? I believe not.

The Brookings Institution published an article “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education” that argues, “educational outcomes for minority children are much more a function of their unequal access to key educational resources, including skilled teachers and quality curriculum than they are a function of race.” 

Race does not define a person’s ability to succeed, what defines it is the opportunities they receive. Minority groups are often the ones being blamed for not pursuing certain careers or failing standardized tests. But how are they supposed to do it if they’re being set up to fail?

It’s not just an aspect of skin color though. Immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, indigenous people, and people with lower socioeconomic status are just a few of the groups that have been marginalized over the years. This marginalization is seen in established U.S. institutions created by an obsolete system that preserves both direct and indirect bias towards these groups. 

It’s clear that the educational system is flawed. It’s a problem advocates for equity in education have grappled with for a long time, and so it’s important to understand what made the education system so inadequate for students. I had the chance to interview a few students and staff at Waltham High School to get a better understanding of how people feel about discrimination.

I think in Waltham in particular, it takes recognizing that the problem still exists. You know that line, see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil… The idea that because you’re not seeing it or hearing it first-hand, and because it doesn’t look bad enough to you, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

— Ms. Moore, WHS English Teacher & Revolutionary Equity Council & Co-Advisor Black Student Union Advisor

Mr. Braggs the principal at Waltham High School shared his thoughts about racism in education today.  “I would say it depends on the community, you might see it from town to town, city to city, you see it in terms of funding that you might have from other schools, you might see it in terms of the curriculum that they have… and sadly money is at the root of a lot of these issues.”

Ms. Moore, WHS English teacher, and advisor for the WHS Black Student Union said, “The education system was built on racism, so no matter what we do, in my opinion, the current education system that we have will always be racist. It would take abolishing the way that we view education now and rebuilding to really get rid of systemic racism.”  She went on to say, “It’s always here, all of the time. We see that in the lack of teacher diversity in the school. We see that in our reliance on standardized testing. We see that in inequitable grading practices. Some teachers even see that in the decision to assign homework. I think we also see that in some of the attempts at solutions.”

Moore provided several examples of our inequitable system. She explained, “If we think about the tracking system, the idea that you can be in a C1 Honors or AP class, that’s a tracking system, that inherently is a racist system because it’s based largely on teacher recommendations… So, if I’m a teacher who has this internalized racial bias that might influence who I’m recommending to take an Honors or AP level class after their freshman year, and that really sets up the trajectory for the rest of their high school experience.” Moore added, “And we know that the content of those tests [standardized tests]  like originally standardized tests were made in an effort to promote eugenics so we know that those tests aren’t set up for people of color to succeed.” 

Acknowledging that today’s challenges of equity in education are founded in the tremendous inequality inherent in the origins of the United States can be a first step in building schools and educational experiences that support equitable learning for all. “American history is written by people from one side of the story,” said Mr. Braggs. WHS senior as well as BSU vice president Henry’Elle Pierre said, “we’re always learning history from the white men’s perspective, you don’t often see history from people who aren’t the saviors in situations. You’re always learning about Christopher Columbus and how he, you know discovered America, but you’re not learning about the horrible things that he did to Indigenous people, you’re not learning about anything from their perspective…”

When the education system was first established in America, it was directed toward a specific audience. White teachers were meant to teach white students about white history, and that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that as we’ve evolved and adopted anti-racist ideas, schools are still teaching students from a curriculum that wasn’t designed for them. In fact, a lot of the ideas in that ancient and outdated system were created in order to oppress the students that today are being forced to learn about them.

“Everything comes to play, but we’re not often learning this because education is taught for the white men and it was created for the white people, so at the end of the day, BIPOC students are often left getting crumbs and last-minute thoughts when it comes to curriculum,” said Pierre.

 It’s important to highlight that the faults within the education system act as catalysts for the lack of opportunities students receive. Many students from minority groups end up not reaching their full potential because they’ve been told both implicitly and explicitly that they aren’t capable of it. WHS sophomore Haybi Garcia stated on the topic that, “everyone has equal opportunities but not everyone has equitable opportunities. Because the opportunities are out there and they are offered for every single student, no matter their background, however, those opportunities are sort of a highlight for a lot of light-skinned students before dark-skinned students… If we think about it, black history is also American history, and it’s something that we should be teaching the whole time through the year.”

When students aren’t given the opportunities they deserve, it tends to have a negative impact on their self-confidence and their mentality. In a survey I conducted, 75.9% of students agreed that discrimination impacts the kind of opportunities students receive. 60% of them  agreed that systemic racism causes students to feel discouraged.

Rain Prince, WHS senior and president of the GSA spoke on how systemic racism impacts a student’s desire to learn. “It really, really harms them in my view that I’ve seen of people where they won’t go and actually advocate for themselves and their learning, and they end up not being as successful because of these ideas that they hold within themselves and that teachers have placed upon them in their learning over the years.”

You may be wondering, how do we work to solve these problems? That’s a question I’ve been seeking an answer too, because it bothers me deeply to see the potential of students be diminished simply because of their race, ethnicity or/and beliefs. Getting to interview students and staff at WHS was very eye-opening. There is so much that goes unnoticed and unrecognized, and it’s our duty to make sure it’s addressed. 

Ms. Moore phrased it very beautifully, “I think in Waltham in particular, it takes recognizing that the problem still exists. You know that line ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil?’… The idea that because you’re not seeing it or hearing it first-hand, and because it doesn’t look bad enough to you, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”


Link to article “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education” :


Thanks to Erik Yegoryan for helping with Mr. Braggs’ interview.