There was the following question from a reader and the answer by Charles Blow under the headline, Your Questions, Answered in the Opinion Page of May 7 New York Times.

I invited you to ask me anything this week, and you did. Here are my answers to some of your most interesting questions

Q. What do you think of the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations?” What do you think of the way it figures in today’s education policies and debates?—John A., New York, N.Y.

A. I think it’s a fascinating concept and often a true expression of the way some children are treated.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” was conceptualized by the former President G.W. Bush, and involves much debate. What does the phrase exactly mean? Is this phrase still up-to-date and meaningful as being questioned now by a NYT reader?

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    Some good explanations from other contributors. I'll restrict myself to remarking that the expression could be reworded as *the subtle discrimination that takes the form of setting low expectations" (for children belonging to ethnic minorities).
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 7:13

8 Answers 8


The expression refers to a prejudiced attitude of intolerance with respect to races and religions, especially those which are not the main accepted ones. This attitude here is described as soft and with low expectations in the sense that it is not aggressive but has little chances of change in a positive way.

soft bigotry Schools need to stop promoting the soft bigotry of low expectations, the Education Secretary has said, claiming teachers refuse to believe that children from poor homes can achieve high standards.

As Ngram shows the expression has been popolar in recent years especially in Am E, but as shown in the article by the a Telegraph is used in Britain too.

  • I can understand 'low expectation.' Can you elaborate meaning of 'soft bigotory' a bit more? Is to persist 'soft bigotry' recommendable as a challege for opportunity, or undesirable as the permission of low-expected status quo, ie, defeatism? Commented May 10, 2014 at 3:51
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    Well, my personal opinion is that is refers to the fact that, 'bigotry' generally is not considered 'politically correct' to say the least, so those who have this kind of attitude tend to show their prejudice in a milder way, often pretending not to be prejudiced. But behind this 'soft' approach, prejudices still remain high, that is why expectations for a positive change remain low. – Josh61 7 mins ago
    – user66974
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 4:54
  • The Telegraph article on “Soft bigotry” you referred to in your answer was very helpful to further understanding of its meaning. Thanks for your providing an elaborate explanation. Commented May 10, 2014 at 8:17

In context, from the rest of Charles Blow's answer to the question linked article:

I suffered from this as well. At one school, the teacher never expected me to perform, so I didn’t. They even tried to transfer me to a “slow” class, which was full of mostly African-American boys, but my mother protested. I changed schools, and the teachers there expected much of me and I rose to meet those expectations, I was given an IQ test and deemed “gifted” and I graduated the valedictorian of my class.

(Emphasis added.) Note that Mr. Blow is African-American, and the question comes after several others about racism and race relations.

His answer implies that his teacher held the racist stereotype that Black people are “slow” (euphemism for learning-disabled or stupid), and on this basis, lacked faith that Blow could perform well in school (the “low expectations”). Blow internalized this stereotype until he changed schools.

This is called soft bigotry in contrast to “harder” forms that were common in the pre-Civil Rights era, such as Black students not being allowed to attend White schools at all.


"The soft bigotry of low expectations" is a political term, crafted by a speechwriter. It's useful to understand it in the context of a political conversation about educational policy, poverty, and racial issues in America. It's a phrase with a lot of connotations, both direct and indirect, that pulls a lot of weight in George W. Bush's "no child left behind" NAACP speech. Understanding all of the subtext may require reading up on modern-day education reform movements (standardized testing, charter schools, &c.), as well as the No Child Left Behind Act. Whether policies like NCLB and Common Core actually constitute a functional answer to "low expectations" is an ongoing political debate in the US.

I think the spirit of this question, though, is this: what does it mean when bigotry is "soft?"

  • "Soft" bigotry is milder and less direct than the most overt kind of discrimination. For example, in the original speech, this is part of a segue to move from talking about "racial redlining and profiling" — the direct persecution of minorities by the police — to talking about structural issues that tend to affect educational outcomes for minority students.

  • "Soft" bigotry is subtle. Because it's less direct, it may be harder to identify and address. In other words, people can act in racist ways (e.g. neglecting students of color) without being labeled as racists by the people around them.

  • "Soft" bigotry is, potentially, unwitting bigotry. The speech hints that even well-meaning people may be perpetuating a bad system. For example:

    There's a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society.

    And whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination.

    In other words, even without overt or covert malice (or even unexamined racist beliefs at all), someone may be contributing to a de-facto racist system. This bit is a big part of what makes it effective political rhetoric that has survived for more than a decade.


It's a piece of political rhetoric and needs to be seen as such. As with many political slogans, it's carrying a number of hidden assumptions and arguments and unspoken conclusions:

  • There are generally demanded standards of achievement.
  • Not demanding an individual meet those standards is doing them a disservice.
  • Individuals who are judged to be less likely to be able meet standards generally face less strong demands to meet those standards.
  • One reason individuals can be judged to be less likely to be able meet certain standards is due to bigotry.
  • Hence, variation in standards is evidence of bigotry.
  • Therefore sink-or-swim one-size-fits-all approaches, without individual consideration are warranted, and opposition to this approach is tantamount to supporting bigotry.
  • Interesting comment, but not an answer to the OP's question. Commented May 10, 2014 at 10:04
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    @PaulyGlott I like this answer. It is answering the What does the phrase exactly mean? part of the asker's question, by explaining the nuance, depth and assumptions of the phrase.
    – Patrick M
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 17:40

Having "low expectations" of minorities in schools or other forums of achievement is a form of bigotry.

This bigotry is considered "soft." At least in comparison to historical forms of bigotry (in the United States) such as excluding minorities from restaurants and other public places.


A prime example of the soft bigotry of low expectations is the way the government has successfully convinced many "minorities" that they (we) are helpless victims of a racist society and they (we) can't survive without the government's help. I know elderly women who have been raised in the projects, have raised their children, who are now adults, in the projects, and now the grandchildren are being raised in the projects. There is no indication that the family will ever get out of the projects. They're being GIVEN a place to live. They're being GIVEN food stamps. That's the "soft" part; it's being packaged as an act of compassion. There is, apparently, no requirement to ever become productive enough to no longer need the government's "help." That's the "bigotry of low expectation."

  • This answer is an opinion on social policy - and a highly personal and political opinion at that - rather than an objective solution to the question. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 7:02
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    This is a correct answer, with an accurate example.
    – FMFF
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 8:32

This has also been used regarding other cultures or religions. For example, Bill Maher used the example that if the Vatican City (the center of the Catholic Church) was periodically performing beheadings in St. Peter Square, there would be a public uproar. Nevertheless, beheadings routinely take place in Mecca (the center of Islam) and we don't talk about it too much because our bigotry expects less from Muslims.

  • No evidence for the contentious claim, "we don't talk about [Arab beheadings] too much because our bigotry expects less from Muslims". Objection 1: There is strong opposition to such abuses - see here for one of a great many examples. 2: Is the difference really due to lower expectations, or to a range of other factors? This answer fails to distinguish between Maher's usage of the expression and its formal meaning. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 6:58

The best way I can think to describe it is: The negative stereotyping of a person's predicted performance based on their gender, race or other demographic. Reading that, there is actually no real difference between the phrase and how we would describe plain old racism, sexism or prejudice in general.

The difference comes in when you're talking about how this form of racism is applied. The bigotry is considered soft because it is used to establish the subject of the bigotry as a protected or oppressed class. This in turn can then be used to justify things like affirmative action or the actions of said protected class no matter how heinous. In other words the bigotry and racism is acceptable and "soft" because it is used to further the cause of the person who's being labeled.

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