How seating charts may reveal bias

Yesterday I subbed in a class where the teacher had seating charts. Each was in a different classroom but I noticed that in the one classroom where the desks were in the traditional 7 or so seats in each file, about 7 across, the teacher had arranged the students in a curious way.

In a very mixed class in terms of ethnicity, the front sections were occupied by two Korean girls up front and the rest Anglos. The back section held the Hispanics and Blacks and a few Anglos. Hmmm. Without knowing the basis for the arrangement (I suspect it may have been alphabetical to start with), it is hard to say what the teacher had in mind. But it is clear that the students are now arranged that way, whether they did it themselves or not.

It reminds me of something I think I’ve already mentioned: the time I was called in to consult with a fourth grade teacher at an inner-city parochial school. His problem with his large class was playground fights pitting one ethnic group against another. So after observing the students at play first, I entered the classroom and watched them come in. As they took their assigned seats, my mouth dropped open and stayed that way the entire class period.

When the kids left me and the teacher alone, he asked me what I thought. I asked him how he had arrived at the seating chart. Had he noticed that the class, while pretty evenly divided among 3 ethnic groups: Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics, the seating had all the Whites on one side of the room, all the Blacks on the other, and in the middle were all the Hispanics.

Now it was his turn to have his jaw drop as I watched him picture the class in his mind’s eye. He said, “Oh my god, I sorted them according to test scores.” He clearly had had no intention of segregating his class, but the structure did it for him. We know how test scores are distributed, which often tells us more about the tests than about the students. (That’s for another blog entry – I’m reading a book on testing right now.) That’s what “structural racism” refers to – the way the structure of society, whether it be testing, or residential distribution, or health care practices, turn out to be race-based not by intent or conscious design but by the very structure of the activity.

The effect of his seating chart, an effect he immediately glommed on to, was to set the students against one another with the Blacks obviously on the bottom of the totem pole in the classroom, leaving the playground the place to turn the tables.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *