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U.S. school principals discriminate against Muslims and atheists, our study finds

Nineteen years after the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim bias still operates widely

Rafeef Hammad, originally from Iraq, takes the citizenship oath with 35 other new U.S. citizens in Fairfax, Va., in January 2017. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

On Sept. 11, 2001, the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda coordinated four attacks against targets in the United States, killing nearly 3,000 individuals and injuring tens of thousands more. After these attacks, Americans grew more suspicious of and outwardly hostile to Muslims. Research shows that these views increased in the years that followed. Our recently published paper in the Public Administration Review shows that — even 19 years later — public officials in the United States discriminate against Muslims.

How we did our research

We drew our conclusions from a type of experiment that researchers call an audit or correspondence study. The experiment was designed to measure whether U.S. public school principals would respond differently to families based on their religious beliefs. To do this, we sent emails to a sample of more than 45,000 public school principals divided evenly across the country. The emails were purportedly sent by a fictional family interested in sending their child to the principal’s school, and asked principals for a meeting. We randomly assigned the family a religious affiliation or lack thereof.

We did that by embedding a quote at the bottom of most emails, in the signature line, that read, “[ … ] teaches that life is precious and beautiful. We should live our lives to the fullest, to the end of our days.” We signaled the family’s religious views by including either “Christianity,” “Catholicism,” “Islam” or “Atheism” in the quote, with the quote attributed to the Rev. Billy Graham, Pope Benedict, the prophet Muhammad or Richard Dawkins, depending on the fictional family’s beliefs.

We also randomly varied how strongly we emphasized the fictional family’s religious beliefs. In some cases, the email indicated that the family wanted to find a school that was compatible with their beliefs; in others, the family noted that it expected accommodation for their beliefs.

For comparison purposes, some emails included no quote or reference to religion at all.

Overall, principals or their staff responded to our emails about 43 percent of the time, comparable to response rates from similar studies.

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U.S. principals are less likely to meet with Muslim families

Our study provides two key insights into how Muslim families are treated in the U.S. public school system.

One is that putatively Muslim families were much less likely to receive a reply. Compared with emails with no quote at the bottom of the email signaling a religious belief, emails from the “Muslim” family had a 4.6 percentage point lower probability of receiving a reply. That’s substantively important — it’s on par with what previous studies have shown about the size and extent of discrimination against African Americans in the United States. We found this discrimination against Muslims to be widespread and systematic across the United States, just as likely to occur in urban areas as in rural areas. The characteristics of the school or the surrounding area matter very little.

Interestingly, public school principals also discriminated at about the same rate against atheists. Emails sent with a quote signed by Richard Dawkins at the end of the missive had a 4.7 percentage point lower probability of receiving a reply. Protestants and Catholics, on the other hand, faced no such discriminatory behavior; they were just as likely to receive a reply as individuals who said nothing about religion at all.

Further, “Muslim” families looking for a compatible school or for some accommodation of their beliefs were both about 8 percentage points less likely to receive a reply than individuals who did not mention their religion. One possible reason for this response was that the principals in our sample discriminated against Muslims, in part, because they perceive that serving such families requires their time and energy. Principals might anticipate that these families would make illegitimate, costly demands on schools or because other members of the school community might object to their presence, causing conflicts that principals would prefer to avoid. Or it could be that these requests activated principals’ biases against “Muslims.” While it’s hard to know why principals behaved this way, this much is clear: Public school principals in the United States are likely to discriminate against students from religious minorities.

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Why this research matters

Public schools play a vitally important role in ensuring that social minorities receive equal treatment under the law. Our results suggest that atheists and Muslims are not currently receiving this equal treatment. To achieve such a goal, public school officials and other policymakers may wish to consider testing and implementing policies and practices that protect people holding a full range of beliefs.

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Steven Pfaff is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

Charles Crabtree (@cdcrabtree) is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Holger L. Kern is an associate professor of political science at Florida State University.

John B. Holbein (@johnholbein1) is an assistant professor of public policy, politics and education in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.