From racial stereotyping and deficit discourse toward a critical race theory in teacher education

From racial stereotyping and deficit discourse toward a critical race theory in teacher education

Solorzano, Daniel G


The sad and simple fact is that while there are some excellent black students.. on average, black students do not try as hard as other students. The reason they do not try as hard is not because they are inherently lazy, nor is it because they are stupid… these students belong to a culture infected with an Anti-intellectual strain, which subtly but decisively teaches them from birth not to embrace school-work too whole heartedly.

_p. E3, George, 2000, quoting John McWhorter

…it is time to `get real’ about race and the persistence of racism in America. -Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, 1992, p. 5

The two epigraphs above exemplify two distinct methods of addressing teacher education in the United States today. While John McWhorter explains the status of African American students in stereotypical, deficit terms, Derrick Bell offers a reminder of the lingering significance of racism and our inability to eliminate it from U.S. society. In this essay, we examine the linkages between a theoretical frameworkcritical race theory (CRT)-and its relation and application to the concepts of race, racism, and racial stereotyping in teacher education.

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory (CRT) challenges the dominant discourse on race and racism as it relates to education by examining how educational theory and practice are used to subordinate certain racial and ethnic groups (Bell, 1995; Calmore, 1992; Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995; Delgado, 1995a&b, 1996; Harris, 1994; Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993).1 A CRT of education has at least five themes that form its basic perspectives, research methods, and pedagogy:

1. The Centrality and Intersectionality of Race and Racism: A CRT of education recognizes the central role racism has played in the structuring of schools and schooling practices, and that racism intersects with other forms of subordination including sexism and classism. In this, a CRT acknowledges how notions of objectivity, neutrality, and meritocracy, as well as curricular practices, such as tracking, teacher expectations, and intelligence testing, have historically been used to subordinate students of color.2 Critical race theorists also take the position that racism has at least four dimensions: (1) it has micro and macro components; (2) it takes on institutional and individual forms; (3) it has conscious and unconscious elements; and (4) it has a cumulative impact on both the individual and group (Davis, 1989; Lawrence, 1987).

2. The Challenge to Dominant Ideology: CRT examines the system of education as part of a critique of societal inequality. In this, critical race educators challenge dominant social and cultural assumptions regarding culture and intelligence, language and capability, through research, pedagogy, and praxis. Critical race theorists argue that traditional claims of objectivity and meritocracy camouflage the self-interest,, power, and privilege of dominant groups in U.S. society (Calmore, 1992).

3. The Commitment to Social Justice: A critical race framework is committed to social justice and offers a liberatory or transformative response to racial, gender, and class oppression (Matsuda, 1991). We envision a social justice research agenda that leads toward the elimination of racism, sexism, and poverty, and the empowering of underrepresented minority groups.

4. The Centrality of Experiential Knowledge: CRT recognizes that the experiential knowledge of women and men of color is legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing, practicing, and teaching about racial subordination(Calmore, 1992). Just as “issues of experience, culture, and identity are not the subject of explicit legal reasoning” (Caldwell, 1995, p. 270), lived experiences of students of color are generally marginalized, if not silenced from educational discourse. Critical race educators can utilize methods such as: storytelling, narratives, chronicles, family history, scenarios, biographies, and parables to draw on the strength of the lived experiences students bring to the classroom (Bell, 1987; Delgado, 1989,1995a&b, 1996; Olivas, 1990; Solor-zano, 1998).

5. The Interdisciplinary Perspective: CRT challenges ahistoricism and the unidisciplinary focus of most traditional analyses and insists on analyzing race and racism by placing them in both an historical and contemporary context using interdisciplinary methods (Delgado, 1984,1992; Garcia, 1995; Harris, 1994; Olivas, 1990). Critical race educators also look to such frameworks as Chicana/o, African American, Asian American, Native American, and Women’s Studies in examining the educational experiences ofstudents of color.

While not static or uniform, these five themes lead us toward an overall goal of a CRT in teacher education. This goal is to develop a pedagogy, curriculum, and research agenda that accounts for the role of race and racism in U.S. education and to work toward the elimination of racism as part of a larger goal of eliminating all forms of subordination in education.

We define a CRT in teacher education as a framework that can be used to theorize and examine the ways in which race and racism impact on the structures, processes, and discourses within a teacher education context. This framework challenges dominant ideology, which supports deficit notions about students of color. Utilizing the experiences of students of color, a CRT in teacher education also theorizes and examines that place where racism intersects with other forms of subordination such as sexism and classism. Critical race scholars in teacher education acknowledge that schools operate in contradictory ways with their potential to oppress and marginalize co-existing with their potential to emancipate and empower. CRT is conceived as a social justice project that attempts to link theory with practice, scholarship with teaching, and the academy with the community. CRT is transdisciplinary and draws on many other schools of progressive scholarship?

A CRT in teacher education asks the following questions:

1. How do educational institutions function to maintain racism, sexism, and classism?

* How do educational structures function to maintain racism, sexism, and classism?

* How do educational processes function to maintain racism, sexism, and classism?

* How do educational discourses function to maintain racism, sexism, and classism?

2. How do Students of Color resist racism, sexism, and classism in educational structures, processes, and discourses?

3. How can educational reforms help end racism, sexism, and classism?

Utilizing the five themes, our working definition, and related questions in CRT, we can begin to identify, analyze, and transform the use of racial stereotypes and deficit-based theories in education, which help maintain the subordination of students of color. We first define race, racism, and racial stereotypes, and then examine how racial stereotypes in the media and professional environments are based on deficit theoretical models and are used to justify certain teacher attitudes and behaviors toward students of color.

Race,, Racism, and Racial Stereotyping

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois (1989) commented that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line” (p. 29). When we examine popular and professional literature, and political debates around immigration, welfare, crime, and affirmative action, it appears that DuBois’s prophecy has continued into the 21st century. In dealing with the issue of the “color-line” or race, history has shown that the United State has never been a “color-blind” society (Gotanda, 1991). The United States is very color conscious and color affects the way people view their separate and interrelated worlds (Dalton, 1987, 1995; Duster, 1993).

United States history reveals that race is a socially constructed category, created to differentiate racial groups, and to show the superiority or dominance of one race over another (Banks, 1995). Indeed, race can be viewed as an “objective” phenomenon until human beings provide the social meaning. The social meaning applied to race is based upon and justified by an ideology of racial superiority and white privilege. That ideology is called racism. Audre Lorde (1992) concisely defines racism as, “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (p. 496). Manning Marable (1992) also defined racism as “a system of ignorance, exploitation, and power used to oppress African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Americans, American Indians and other people on the basis of ethnicity, culture, mannerisms, and color” (p. 5).

Embedded in Lorde and Marable’s definitions of racism are at least three important points: (1) one group believes itself to be superior, (2) the group which believes itself to be superior has the power to carry out the racist behavior, and (3) racism effects multiple racial/ethnic groups. These two definitions take the position that racism is about institutional power, and people of color in the United States have never possessed this form of power. By merely having a”conversations about race,” without talking about racism, we decontextualize those places where race and racism enters our lives in macro and micro ways (Solorzano, 1998).

Racial Stereotyping and Students of Color

A critical race theory in teacher education seeks to identify, analyze, and transform subtle and overt forms of racism in education in order to transform society. Therefore, how does racism shape the education of Latina/o, AfricanAmerican, Asian, Pacific Islander, NativeAmerican, and other Students of Color differently than the education of White students?

To answer this question, we first define and examine racial stereotypes. Gordon Allport (1979) defines a stereotype as “an exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category” (p. 191). This definition provides a valuable tool for teacher educators to examine how racial stereotypes function to justify certain attitudes and behaviors toward students of color.

Racial Stereotypes in Media and Students of Color

Figure 1 shows how racial and ethnic stereotypes can be placed into at least three general categories: (1) intelligence and educational stereotypes; (2) personality or character stereotypes; and (3) physical appearance stereotypes. Indeed, these racial stereotypes and related conduct toward Blacks, Chicanas/os, and Native Americans are often times interchangeable between the groups. The fact that Blacks, Chicanas/os, and Native Americans have been and are often still seen on television, film, and in print media as “dumb,” “violent,” “lazy,” “irresponsible,” or “dirty” may often be used to rationalize their subordinate position in society (Berkeley Art Center, 1982; Bonilla & Girling, 1973).

In educational settings, these stereotypic traits can be used to justify: (1) having low educational and occupational expectations for students of color, (2) placing students of color in separate schools and in separate classrooms within schools, (3) remediating or “dumbing down” the curriculum and pedagogy for students of color, and (4) expecting students of color to one day occupy lower status and levels of occupations. Too often, the social issues of welfare, crime, drugs, immigrants, and educational problems are given a racial face or are racialized through stereotypical media depictions of people of color (Omi & Winant, 1994).

Racial Stereotypes In Professional Environments and Students of Color

Racial stereotypes often take on different forms at the professional level. Indeed, it would be unprofessional for teachers and teacher educators to describe students of color as “dumb,””dirty,” or “lazy.” Instead, some educators and scholars might use different terminology, such as”uneducable,” “lack hygiene,” or “lack motivation.” For example, around the turn of the century, Lewis Terman (1916), the major importer and translator of the Alfred Binet’s intelligence, or IQ, test, commented that:

high grade or border-line deficiency… is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come…. Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes…. They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made efficient workers…. There is no possibility at the present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding. (pp. 91-92)

In the 1960s, Cecilia Heller (1966), in theorizing why Mexican Americans lack social mobility, stated:

The kind of socialization that Mexican American children generally receive at home is not conducive to the development of the capacities needed for advancement in a dynamic industrialized society. This type of upbringing creates stumbling blocks to future advancement by stressing values that hinder mobility-familyties, honor, masculinity, and living in the present- and by neglecting the values that are conducive toit-achievement, independence, and deferred gratification. (p. 34)

In addition, Heller stated that Mexican American “[p]arents, as a whole, neither impose standards of excellence for tasks performed by their children nor do they expect evidence of high achievement” (p. 37).

In the 1980s, Thomas Sowell (1981) claimed that “the goals and values of Mexican Americans have never centered on education” (p. 266) and that many Mexican Americans find the process of education “distasteful” (p. 267). Also, in the 1990s, former United States Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos stated that Latino parents deserve much of the blame for the high dropout rate among their children because, “Hispanics have always valued education…but somewhere along the line we’ve lost that. I really believe that, today, there is not that emphasis” (Snider, 1990) p. 1). Moreover, John Ogbu (1990) commented that, “involuntary minorities [Blacks and Chicanos] have not developed a widespread effort optimism or a strong cultural ethic of hard work and perseverance in the pursuit of education” (p. 53). Indeed, the first epigraph by John McWhorter in this essay offers a recent addition to this list of professional racial stereotypes.

Can these comments be interpreted as “professional” ways of stating that Blacks and Latinos are socially and culturally infe rior to Whites? Can racial stereotypes, illustrated here in the media and professional settings, serve the purpose of rationalizing and keeping communities and students of color in poor and unequal conditions? These questions are important because the answers can theoretically guide the policy recommendations and educational reforms needed to solve educational inequities.

At least four general theoretical models are used to explain the lower educational attainment of minority students: (1) genetic determinist, (2) cultural determinist, (3) school determinist, and (4) societal determinist. Each model begins with a specific unit of analysis and draws upon particular concepts for explaining how and why students of color experience lower educational attainment compared to Whites. It is important to note that more specific models exist within these general theoretical frameworks, and these specific models may bridge two or more general frameworks. Figure 2 presents, in simplified form, each general model’s underlying theoretical perspective, each model’s attribution of responsibility for school failure, and each model’s primary policy solutions.

Whether through media or professional venues, racial stereotyping blames unequal outcomes on the students of color themselves rather than on society and its institutions. Racial stereotypes find their theoretical foundations from two traditions of deficit thinking-genetic and cultural deficit models. The genetic determinist model reflects the position that the low educational attainment of minority students can be traced to deficiencies in their genetic structure (Jensen, 1969; Kamin, 1974; Terman, 1916). In this scenario, there are few social policy options-lacking genetic transformation or total neglect-to raise the educational attainment of minority students. While seemingly out of favor in educational research and policy circles, there is a resurgence in interest in the genetic model resulting from the works of Lloyd Dunn (1987; see Fernandez 1988), the Minnesota Twin Studies (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, & Tellegen, 1990), Frederick Goodwin (see Breggin & Breggin, 1993), and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994).

The second and more widely used model in this deficit tradition is the cultural deficit model. The cultural deficit model contends that minority cultural values, as transmitted through the family, are dysfunctional, and therefore cause low educational and occupational attainment. The model explains that deficient cultural values include: present versus future time orientation, immediate instead of deferred gratification, an emphasis on cooperation rather than competition, and placing less value on education and upward mobility (see Carter & Segura, 1979). These cultural deficit models also name the internal social structure of families of color as deficient. They cite that such deficiency is caused by large, disorganized, female-headed families; Spanish or non-standard English spoken in the home; and patriarchal or matriarchal family structures. Cultural deficiency models argue that since parents of color fail to assimilate and embrace the educational values of the dominant group, and continue to transmit or socialize their children with values that inhibit educational mobility, then they are to blame if low educational attainment continues into succeeding generations.

This cultural deficit discourse about people of color has become the “norm” in social scientific research, despite insufficient empirical evidence to support it (Kretovics & Nussel, 1994; Persell, 1977; Solorzano, 1991, 1992a&b; Solorzano & Solorzano, 1995; Valencia, 1998; Valencia & Solorzano, 1998). In practice, the deficit model is applied in the classroom, and to students of color, by teachers who are professionally trained in colleges, and specifically in teacher education programs that utilize an individualistic and cultural deficit explanation of low minority educational attainment (Kretovics & Nussel, 1994; Persell, 1977). Often, schools of education seek to solve the issues emerging from this model through a teacher training focus on the acculturation of minority students to the values and behaviors of the culturally dominant group, while criticizing, downplaying, or ignoring the values and behaviors of marginalized minority cultures.

Claims that the cultural deficit model is no longer widely used seem premature. In fact, the 1980s and 1990s have seen a revival of the cultural deficit model, under the rubric of the cultural”underclass” (Baca Zinn, 1989; Valencia & Solorzano, 1998). Indeed, Joseph Kretovics and Edward Nussel (1994) have stated, “[alt the highest levels of educational policy, we have moved from deficiency theory to theories of difference, back to deficiency theory” (p. x). The cultural deficit model, with its related racial stereotypes in the media and in professional environments, remains the hidden theory of choice at many elementary and secondary schools, teacher education departments, professional meetings, and settings where the topic of minority educational inequality is discussed (Chavez, 1992; McWhorter, 2000).

It is important to note that unconscious and subtle forms of racial stereotyping are pervasive in the public and private discourse and are usually not socially condoned (Delgado & Stefancic, 1992; Lawrence, 1987; Pierce, 1974, 1978). Harlon Dalton (1995) has argued that it is important for Whites “to conceive of themselves as members of a race and to recognize the advantages that attach to simply having white skin” (p. 6). Andrew Hacker (1992) has raised the question: Can we place a price on being White in the United States? (see pp. 31-32).

However, Dalton (1995) goes onto state that most Whites do not see themselves in racial terms because being White “is like the tick of a familiar clock, part of the easily tuned-out background noise” (p. 6). In the teacher education classroom, the racial/ ethnic experiences of Whites can be an important part ofthe discussion and analysis of the advantages and privileges of being White in the United States (see Allen, 1993; Dalton, 1995; Hacker, 1992; Halewood, 1995; Scheurich, 1993a&b; Sleeter, 1993; Sleeter, 1994).

Occasionally, people of color get a glimpse into this world of subtle and unconscious racism and racial stereotyping (Lawrence, 1987). For instance, people of color often hear the following remarks:

“When I talk about those Blacks, I really wasn’t talking about you.”

“You’re not like the rest of them. You’re different.”

“I don’t think of you as a Mexican.”

“You speak such good English.”

“Aren’t all Asians good in math?”

“If only there were more of them like you.”

“All Native Americans are such spiritual people.”

“But you speak without an accent.”

Taken individually, these comments are viewed by most people of color as insults. However, many Whites see these statements differently and respond to people of color with such retorts as “you’re being too sensitive about race,” or “why does everything have to go back to race?” In fact, Charles Lawrence (1987) has commented that through”selective perception, whites are unlikely to hear many of the inadvertent racial slights that are made in their presence” (pp. 340-341). Similarly, Richard Delgado (1988) has stated that “White people rarely see acts of blatant racism, while minority people experience them all the time” (p. 407).

In dealing with racial stereotypes in our teacher education classrooms, we need to hear about, discuss, and analyze those racial experiences that People of Color and Whites encounter in their public and private worlds. Not only do we need to discuss overt or blatant racial stereotypes, attitudes, and behaviors, but we also need to listen, understand, and analyze racial microaggressions: those “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are `put downs’ of blacks by offenders” (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Wills, 1978, p. 66; Solorzano, 1998). Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (1992) describe how:

Racism’s victims become sensitized to its subtle nuances and codewords-the body language, averted gazes, exasperated looks, terms such as `you people,’ `innocent whites,’ ‘highly qualfied black,”articulate’and so on-that, whether intended or not, convey racially charged meanings. (p. 1283)

One might add other coded language to this list such as “quotas,” “preferences,” “affirmative action,” “reverse discrimination,” and “illegal aliens” (Williams, 1991). In our teacher education classrooms, we need to closely and thoroughly examine the cumulative effect of these racial microaggressions on both minority and non-minority students and teachers (Solorzano, 1998; Solorzano & Villalpando, 1998; Solorzano & Yosso, 2000; Yosso, 2000).


Critical race theory in teacher education provides a framework to challenge genetic and cultural deficit theories. In fact, using the five themes of CRT, we can engage in the following four exercises to better understand and challenge race, racism, and racial stereotypes in our classrooms.

(1) Define, analyze, and give examples for the concepts of race, racism, and racial stereotypes. Engaging in a discussion, analysis, and debate around these concepts is a critical first step. Students can examine and give examples of racism in its institutional and individual forms, its macro and micro forms, conscious and unconscious elements, and its cumulative effects on both minority and non-minority students.

(2) Identify racial stereotypes in film, television, and print forms of media, which are used to justify attitudes and behavior toward students of color. For example, students can conduct a comparative analysis of three high school genre films, Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me (1989), and Dangerous Minds (1995), looking for the quantity and quality of Black and Latina/o characters. A discussion of these images can lead to the development of alternative story lines and scripts for the portrayal of students of color in film. This same content analysis and alternative portrayals can be performed on television programs and news broadcasts.

Documentary films on the historical and contemporary condition of the Black and Chicano communities can provide an invaluable resource for developing an antiracist and anti-sexist curriculum. For instance, such Public Broadcasting Service film series as the Eyes on the Prize America’s Civil Rights Years (1986), Eyes on the Prize II. America at the Racial Crossroads (1990), and Chicano: History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (1996) can serve as an important filmic base to challenge some of the racial and gender stereotypes related to Communities of Color. This visual curriculum can also be supplemented by the work of other artists who use their talents to challenge racial stereotypes and deficit discourse, as evidenced in the CD Music for The Native Americans by Robbie Robertson and The Red Road Ensemble (1994) and the comedy CD Alien Nation by George Lopez (1996).

(3) Identify racial stereotypes in professional settings, show their relationship to media stereotypes, and then examine how both are used to justify the unequal treatment of students of color. For example, using the current state mandated language arts and social science elementary and secondary textbooks, students can conduct a content analysis of the quantity and quality of portrayals of Blacks, Chicanas/os, Native Americans, and Asian Americans (Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1977). As a follow-up, students can use contemporary and historical ethnic studies texts about People of Color to re-create alternative depictions to those found in the state mandated textbooks.

(4) Find examples within and about communities of color that challenge and transform racial stereotypes. In many communities of color, students can find and analyze street murals that artistically portray the positive and negative conditions in these communities. Also, in many of these communities, elders keep some of the history and traditions of the community alive. Both street murals and elders can be invaluable resources to dispel the myths of an “uneducated” minority community. Additionally, information gathered by interviewing day laborers, who congregate in the mornings on certain street corners, can challenge the stereotype of the “lazy” minority worker (Valenzuela, 1999). Moreover, rich sources of material include individual and family oral and pictorial histories, institutional and community studies, and artistic and cultural artifacts and ideologies, which can challenge popular and professional racial stereotypes.

Racial stereotypes, whether in popular or professional literature, continue to impact our students and communities. As educators, we must critically analyze their source, rationale, and impact on the people who perpetuate the stereotyping and on those being stereotyped. The discussion of race, racism, and racial stereotypes must be a continuing part of our teacher education discourse. In our classrooms, we must seek out media, professional, and artistic images that depict people of color in multiple contexts. As educators, we need to identify the resources and strengths of students of color and place them at the center of our research, curriculum, and teaching.

The five elements of critical race theory provide a framework for teacher education faculty and students to create, recreate, and recover knowledge and art in communities of color. In turn, CRT can empower teachers and students to better understand and challenge racially stereotypical portrayals. CRT challenges us to look for the many strengths within students and communities of color in order to combat and eliminate negative racial stereotypes.


1. See Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (1993, 1994) for two comprehensive annotated bibliographies on critical race theory.

2. For this essay, students and people of color are defined as those persons of African American, Chicana/o, Asian American, and Native American ancestry. We sometimes use this term synonymously with minority. Chicanos and Chicanos are defined as female and male persons of Mexican-origin living in the United States. Latinos and Latinos are persons of Latin American origin living in the United States.

3. Our definition of Critical Race Theory is adapted from the LatCrit Primer (1999).


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Daniel G. Solorzano is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles; Tara J. Yosso is an assistant professor in the Chicano Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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