Risha Berry: Structural racism's impact on persons of color

Research deep dive: disproportionality

Risha R. Berry, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Educational Leadership
Dr. Risha R. Berry

This is the first in a series of articles on VCU School of Education faculty who are conducting research touching on the theme of disproportionality – the ratio between the percentage of people in a particular group experiencing an event (such as persons of color who are incarcerated) compared to that group’s percentage in the overall population. In this article, Dr. Risha Berry, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, re-examines her doctoral dissertation with a focus on the more pervasive problem of structural racism within society.

Four years ago, Dr. Risha Berry wrote in her doctoral dissertation that if barriers which limit black educators’ access to career advancement were not challenged, those educators would end up isolated in high stress, low autonomy positions.

To illustrate, she cited black principals, perceived by many as being good at turning around underperforming schools, but who might also get burned out more quickly due to the inherent challenges in those schools with academics, funding and school location. Eventually, many of those black principals are pushed out of the system.

Today, Berry is re-examining her dissertation research, looking beyond the characteristics of containment of black educators, to how systems and organizations disproportionately affect persons of color throughout our entire lives.

“Back then, I looked at quantitative data from the National Center for Education Statistics. I saw characteristics of containment, but I couldn’t manipulate the pre-existing data from NCES – SASS principal data – to examine multiple structural barriers documented through lived experience by the literature,” she said.

Berry is now centering her research on structural racism. “Racism and implicit bias are so pervasive within society, that I’m looking beyond what guides a person of color down a different path, to something more inherent in the system itself,” she said.

To illustrate, Berry points to the school-to-prison pipeline, where disproportionate numbers of children, in particular children of color may be susceptible to harsh behavioral policies and push-out.

“What’s important is that all of these things are part of a bigger system that carries with it a lot of baggage. You have to remember that school systems were segregated, and not initially created for children of color, so when we try to achieve equity in our schools, that foundation was never in the system to begin with,” she said.

Berry is developing a predictive model in her current research, one where educators can begin to look at contextual factors as soon as a segment of students begins to perform differently. “We need to look at trends starting with Pre-K, third and fifth grade, and transition into middle and high school, including post-secondary pathways. There have to be constant doses of intervention along the way,” she said.

“If implicit bias is normalized in the system, we need to look at what’s happening early on, and offset the organizational containment that exists within the system.”

Read a MERC study by Dr. Berry and Dr. Donna Dockery on indicators, trends and promising interventions in dropout prevention.