As explicit discrimination has receded in the last two decades, culminating in the elevation of an African-American to the Presidency, a woman to the House Speakership and a black woman to the galactic dominance known as being Oprah Winfrey, those who study the effects of racism and sexism have had to cope with a difficult question: If discrimination is less powerful, why do some groups in society continue to fare worse than others? Has bias merely become better hidden, or are there other forces at work?
One theory that has gained influence among sociologists is that some members of stigmatized groups, when faced with stressful situations, expect themselves to do worse — a prophecy that fulfills itself. These expectations, which can occur even in otherwise fair (or fair-seeming) situations — such as, say, a standardized test — produce stress and threaten cognitive function. The effect is called “stereotype threat,” and African-Americans, girls, even jocks have all been shown susceptible to stereotype threat.
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