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Racialized Prisms: A Randomized Experiment on Families’ Perceptions of Schools
Chantal A. Hailey, University of Texas at Austin

Chantal A. Hailey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research is at the intersections of race and ethnicity, stratification, urban sociology, education, and criminology. She is particularly interested in how micro decision-making contributes to larger macro segregation and stratification patterns and how segregation creates, sustains, and exacerbates racial, educational, and socioeconomic inequality.

Abstract: Social scientists continue to debate whether families’ avoidance of schools with higher fractions of racial outgroups results from racial animus (a pure race explanation) or their use of racial demographics as a heuristic for school characteristics (a racial proxy explanation). In this article, I propose a new explanation for these patterns. I argue that racial segregation persists, in part, because families perceive school characteristics through a racial prism, whereby their racial biases, awareness of cultural stereotypes, and racial contexts contribute to racialized perceptions of identical schools. To explore this theory, I conduct an experiment with a racially diverse sample of 900 students and parents currently choosing schools. Families provide their perceptions of, and willingness to attend, hypothetical schools that vary in racial composition, academic outcomes, and safety ratings. I find families interpret the same data differently depending on schools’ racial demographics. These racialized perceptions contribute to the effects of school race on families’ preferences. The racial prism concept demonstrates why efforts to improve school quality alone are unlikely to increase integration, and points to the importance of racialized perceptions in explaining the persistence of racial segregation.