Despite that white students are no longer the numerical majority in U.S. schools, racial inequality persists.

Professor of sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies at Pomona College

Recently, much has been made about census reports that highlight how white students are no longer the numeric majority in U.S. public schools. 

Awareness of these changes is important, but statistics on students’ racial demographics tell only part of the story.

These demographic changes are not reflected in our schools. According to a 2012 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project, black and Latina/o segregation has increased over the past two decades, and although there are more youth of color in the U.S., the typical white student attends school where 75% of students are white. It’s been sixty years since Brown vs. the Board of Education struck down de jure segregation, but our schools remain heavily segregated. They are what Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project refers to as hypersegregated by race and class. Blacks and Latinas/os are more likely to attend poor and working-class schools with fewer resources than their white counterparts, who are often secluded in middle-class schools.

Even within diverse schools, racial divisions and unequal access to resources persist. Walk onto most schools and it’s hard not to notice groups of students clustered together by race. They gather in distinct parts of campus—under trees, on benches, in hallways, and behind buildings. These divisions are not natural; they are fueled by racist stereotypes and school practices such as curriculum tracking. Just peer into students’ classrooms where they are often tracked into different courses, and the racial separation is glaring. For classes marked as advanced placement, honors, college prep or regular, and vocational, middle- and upper-middle-class, white, and Asian American students predominate in the most prestigious courses, while their poor, working-class, Latina/o, and African American schoolmates are largely absent. The origins of tracking are based on racist beliefs that groups of color and Southern and Eastern Europeans lacked the mental capabilities to excel academically, so schools historically sorted and selected students into unequal classes and life trajectories. As in the past, different groups of students are steered toward college and receive access to critical thinking classes and more counselor support. Such de facto segregation reinforces divisions and inequality. Regardless of its racist origins and unequal outcomes, this system of course placement endures in our schools.

Despite changing demographics, those running our schools—superintendents, school board members, administrators, and teachers—remain predominately white. More than 80% of teachers are white, and according to a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, there was not a single teacher of color in nearly 40% of U.S. public schools. As of 2012, more than 65% of California’s K-12 public school teachers are white. At just 18%, Latinas/os are the next highest percentage of teachers. In contrast, 26% of California students are white and 52% are Latina/o. These racial disparities are a reflection of some of the educational barriers students encounter, and they hinder students’ access to racially diverse role models and perspectives. As the number of students of color increases at rates faster than teachers of color, these gaps are expected to grow.

Course curriculum has also not kept pace with the changing student population. The histories, experiences, and perspectives of groups of color are absent in many textbooks and classroom lessons, providing students with incomplete and inaccurate information. It has been nearly fifty years since students and community members organized for the teaching of relevant materials such as ethnic studies. The struggle for such courses remains, epitomized most blatantly in the banning of books and elimination of a renowned Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District.

These enduring disparities receive too little attention. They are normalized and taken as “business as usual,” ensuring their persistence. Instead, reports that white students are no longer the numeric majority make headlines. These reports fuel fears about the growth of students of color, and they do little to focus on the pressing issues of our time such as when will our schools finally serve all students. In Academic Profiling, I center students’ experiences to understand the stories behind the numbers and the multiple practices perpetuating inequality.


Gilda L. Ochoa is professor of sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies at Pomona College. She is author of Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap (Minnesota, 2013), Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community, and Learning from Latino Teachers.

Ochoa wrote for the University of Minnesota Press blog previously about the significance of listening to schools’ most marginalized students.

“Remarkably provocative and perceptive, Academic Profiling is a meticulously researched and masterfully argued comparative study of how the system of schooling, contrary to the rhetoric of equal opportunities, re-enforces the achievement gap and reproduces disparities. With ethnographic insight and analytical precision, Gilda L. Ochoa details how immigration, racialization, class, and gender differentially impacts the educational trajectories for Asian and Latino students, and presents compelling lessons for transforming the context, culture, and process of learning.”—Linda Vo, University of California, Irvine

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