Race Gaps in School Trust: Where They Come from and How to Resolve Them
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Trust in American institutions varies widely among adults from different racial-ethnic backgrounds. For example, 43% of Whites reported low levels of trust in the police compared to 70% of African Americans. This brief describes findings from a study that demonstrates the developmental psychological processes for the emergence of racial and ethnic gaps in institutional trust during adolescence as well as the ways these gaps affect long-term developmental outcomes. The authors show that these gaps and their consequences are not inevitable. A key developmental challenge for adolescents in the contemporary U.S. is learning to assess the trustworthiness of an institution, such as a school, and to make judgments about whether to comply with its rules and policies. African American and Latino youth make these assessments in a context in which they are disproportionately subjected to mistreatment by authorities compared to White youth. This mistreatment takes the form of low expectations from teachers, disparities in disciplinary action, and suspensions for minor misbehavior. When racial and ethnic minority youth experience and perceive biased mistreatment, they may generalize from specific interactions within the school environment to a mental representation that the institution is biased against them. As a consequence, youth may then be less likely to comply with school policies, which in turn leads to a self-reinforcing cycle of punishment by authorities and further loss of trust by minority students. Students who have lost trust are deprived of the benefits of engaging with an institution. In schools, these benefits include forming positive relationships with teachers and other mentors and accessing resources and opportunities for advancement. But trust can be improved through timely interventions, such as those that provide “wise feedback.” These strategies communicate to students that they will be respected as valuable individuals rather than treated or judged through the prism of a negative stereotype. These signals, offered during critical periods of trust formation, have the opportunity to create positive consequences that can lead to a virtuous cycle with positive outcomes. The authors use data from an eight-year longitudinal study that tracked African American and White students across two cohorts from sixth grade until one year after high school (Study 1). They test whether disciplinary incidents in school, and the sense of injustice they engender, predict a loss of institutional trust among African American youth as well as a greater awareness of procedural injustice. They focus on “judgment call” incidents such as excessive noise or talking out of turn. The authors chose this approach because previous research has demonstrated that no racial-ethnic disparities exist in discipline for objective infractions—such as bringing a weapon to school—but African American students are much more likely than White students to be disciplined for subjective infractions such as disobedience and loitering. The authors then test whether trust among middle schoolers predicts their discipline incidents in eighth grade and their eventual enrollment in a four-year college in the year after high school. Next, the authors examine the effects of a trust-restoring “wise feedback” intervention in the seventh grade—in the form of a teacher’s handwritten note on an essay that communicated respect and trust—on the number of eighth grade discipline incidents and on the students’ on-time enrollment at a four-year college. Finally, they analyze data from a one-year, cohort-sequential study of Latino and White middle school students (Study 2).