Structural racism as the fundamental cause of the academic achievement gap

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Sociology Compass

Publication Date



Over six decades since the Supreme Court ruled that all American children have the right to a high quality education, the academic achievement gap remains an important social problem in the United States. Researchers interested in understanding the achievement gap generally seek to find the mechanisms that can explain why Black students continue to achieve at lower levels than their White counterparts. This research has shown that differences in socioeconomic status, family cultural resources, school quality and racial composition, and bias and prejudice in schools all act as mechanisms that link race to academic achievement. In this paper, we review studies from the past 10 years on the academic achievement gap. We argue that while all of the factors identified in the literature can add insight to how race structures educational achievement, the fundamental cause of the achievement gap is structural racism, a system of social organization that privileges White Americans and disadvantages Americans of color. We argue that acknowledging structural racism as the fundamental cause of the achievement gap can provide a unifying framework for interpreting findings from studies of specific mechanisms link race to academic outcomes.