I just read a pilot study that CNN released on the racial attitudes of children. And nearly 60 years after the watershed Brown v. Board of Education case – in which the Supreme Court invalidated Jim Crow school segregation – it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the study, three psychologists tested 133 students in the 4-to-5 and 9-to-10 age ranges. Eight schools were involved, half from Georgia, and half from the New York metropolitan area. The study was designed to simulate the Kenneth and Mamie Clark study used in the Brown case, in which African-American children were asked whether they preferred a white doll or a black doll. Having expressed an overwhelming preference for the white doll, they demonstrated the negative effects of segregation on “ego development and self-awareness in Negro children.”
Curiously, the results were about the same six decades later. In the recent study, the researchers asked the 4- and 5-year-olds a series of questions and had them answer by pointing to one of five cartoon pictures that varied in skin color from light to dark. The 9- and 10-year-olds were given the same questions and cartoons, but were also asked questions concerning a bar chart showing light to dark skin tones.
Essentially, white children responded with a high degree of “white bias,” meaning that they viewed their own skin tone positively, they associated darker skin with negative characteristics, and they were far more stereotypic in their racial attitudes, beliefs and preferences. There was no difference between age groups. And black children also had a bias towards whiteness, although not nearly as great as white children did.
The lesson that I take from these results is clear:
- parents, teach your kids well, but better than you’re doing now, and
- this is a nation that still upholds whiteness and denigrates blackness.
To be sure, black self-esteem is a lingering, unresolved issue in a racist nation that cannot grapple with the whole race thing – even with a black president of biracial parentage named Barack Obama. But that white children are internalizing white skin superiority and negative black stereotypes so intensely should tell you that they are not learning the right things at home when it comes to diversity, tolerance and inclusion, if they are learning anything at all.
Unfortunately, that is how white-skin privilege works. As the self-proclaimed standard bearers, white Americans often may not feel as if they have to worry about talking to their children about such matters. Parents of color, however, don’t have that luxury. And in a nation where the color of your skin can determine where you live, your livelihood and even your life or death, parents of color may feel the need to help their children navigate through a color-coded society fraught with obstacles and pitfalls.
And in this environment screaming for racial understanding, states such as Texas and Arizona would further exacerbate things by whitewashing their public school curricula and eliminating ethnic studies courses.
The negative labels assigned to blackness and all things black are readily apparent in the English language. And the badges of slavery and Jim Crow remain, even as those dreaded institutions are supposedly a thing of the past. Lynchings in this country have a shameful history, and typically they were committed upon a rumor that a black man raped a white woman. Black equals poverty, inferiority, laziness and all the horrible and distasteful things one can conjure up. Black man equals all of those dreadful things plus criminality. (Apparently, a black man with the title of President of the United States equals Nazi-Communist-Kenyan-Muslim-black-radical terrorist.)
So, when Charles Stewart, a white man in Boston, murdered his pregnant wife in 1989, he said a black man did it. And everyone believed it. When a white woman named Susan Smith murdered her two young sons in South Carolina in 1994, she said that she had been carjacked by a black man, who drove away with her children. And everyone believed it, even though Smith said the man wore a knit ski cap. As an aside, I’ve never seen any of my South Carolinian relatives wear a knit ski cap. And typically when this sort of thing occurs, the police will wage ultimate war on the chocolate side of town, rounding up all the brothers just for the hell of it.
And just the other day, a white Philly cop shot himself and claimed it was the work of a black man with cornrows and a tattoo. Why do they keep doing it? Obviously because they know, or at least think they can get away with it, in a nation that tells you that these are the acts expected of darker-skinned folks. With negative stereotypes in the media, and black and brown inmates filling up to 70 percent of the nation’s prison beds, why not?
This problem is far greater than one study can solve, but the CNN report is instructive. Consequently, we need to remind ourselves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This reality must be unsettling for those who risked life and limb to build a better society. It tells you the work ain’t over, and it would serve us well to reach the children.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.