What is the soft bigotry of low expectations?

May 23, 2024 | By NICOLE W.C. YEATMAN

In September 1999, then-Governor of Texas George W. Bush gave a speech to the Latin Business Association about education. America needed to adopt the mindset that every child can learn, he said. “It does not matter if they grow up in foster care or a two-parent family. These circumstances are challenges, but they are not excuses.” 

He continued: 

Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less—the soft bigotry of low expectations. Some say that schools can’t be expected to teach, because there are too many broken families, too many immigrants, too much diversity. I say that pigment and poverty need not determine performance. That myth is disproved by good schools every day. Excuse-making must end before learning can begin. 

The soft bigotry of low expectations—a powerful phrase crafted by Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson—describes a patronizing and dangerous attitude, cloaked as kindness, that assumes certain people are capable of less because of their race or background.  

That attitude is embedded in too much of today’s educational policies. Schools have cut honors classes, convinced they’re unfair to black and Hispanic students. They’ve adopted “restorative discipline” policies that prevent disruptive kids from facing consequences. One charter school network dropped its motto (“Work hard. Play nice.”) because it “supported the illusion of meritocracy.” And several magnet schools, including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and Boston Latin School, have replaced colorblind admissions tests with more holistic processes that effectively lower standards for students from certain neighborhoods. 

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter had a great conversation about the soft bigotry of low expectations in 2021. 

“The presumption that somebody who happens to be brown should be ipso facto exempted from the expectation of performance, patted on the head rather than guided to the challenge, is racism,” Loury said. 

McWhorter described a contentious moment he had in a seminar when he defended the SAT college admissions exam. “We were talking about the vocabulary you used to have to know on those tests,” McWhorter said. A young woman training to be a teacher became “a little bit insubordinate because she felt so strongly about it.” She told McWhorter it was more important to teach kids empathy than “these old $10 words.” 

Last year, former teacher Florina Rodov explained in Newsweek that she would find teaching today untenable because of the “extreme positions on the right and the left.” She reflected: 

In the Herculean effort to prepare students for college, work and life, I believe there is no room for the unchallenged belief that our country is irreparably broken and the system is rigged against people of color. Especially in the school where I taught, where the student population was mostly Hispanic and African-American. 

Therefore, I told my students that they were architects of their own destiny, hard work and good choices matter, and America is the only country in the world where you can grow up without electricity or hot water and become Oprah Winfrey. 

High expectations have actually been linked to higher student performance, Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli notes. Closing the achievement gap requires expecting achievement from all students. Each student should be given equal freedom to thrive, encouraged to work hard, and motivated by the idea that infinite opportunities are open to them. No one’s race or background caps what they can achieve. 

In 2006, as U.S. president, Bush reinvoked the soft bigotry of low expectations in a speech to the NAACP (pictured at the top of this post).  

“If you have low expectations, you’re going to get lousy results,” Bush said. “We must not tolerate a system that gives up on people.”