Why Not Blame It on a Black Man

black sistersI 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?

david.jpgThis 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.

David A. Love

This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.


  1. SK says

    It’s human nature to categorize; we evolved an astute ability to differentiate predators from less dangerous animals, and nutritious plants from poisonous ones. If we hadn’t done so for millenia, humans wouldn’t be alive today. Now we live in a world where our brain’s ability to classify works against us. Stereotyping is a relatively automatic function, but it doesn’t serve us well in today’s multicultural, multiethnic environment.

    I learned this in the 1960s and 1970s when my grandma became racist against Puerto Ricans because as immigrants moved into her town, the crime rate went up and elderly people were mugged and attacked in their homes. The perpetrators were often young Puerto Rican men, and it got to the point that she could no longer safely walk to the bus. When she described the situation to me, I pointed out that she shouldn’t stereotype because she hadn’t met all Puerto Ricans, but it didn’t matter. The ones that were putting her in danger were the only ones she was concerned about. That’s experiential racism, when people are exposed to the worse members of a group and base their opinions on those few. In reality, she could have been at risk for being mugged by Caucasians, but the fact was that the incidence of Puerto Ricans violently attacking elderly people was much higher.

    The problem is that there’s a big difference between racism that is taught versus experiential race-based categorization. We can teach our children that they should fight our natural tendency to categorize, and teach them that classifying an entire race of people is not healthy, useful or functional. But the fact is, when they look around at other people in the world, they classify and stereotype based on what they see. Their actual experiences can lead them to be racist. If an African American kid grows up in a solid family with middle class resources and values, they’ll have a different perspective about being black than a kid who grows up around violent, drug addicted blacks. What they see around them affects not just how they perceive those people, but also themselves. The same goes for white kids. In an environment where their exposure to African Americans is by going to school with black kids who have similar family structures and values as their own, they’ll perceive African Americans as equal, similar and acceptable. But if their exposure to blacks is, for instance, seeing porn-based or sexist or violent rap videos, or if the few black people they know are the school’s biggest trouble makers or drug dealers, those few people will affect their perceptions about the entire race. There’s a reason that dark skinned immigrants who drive taxis in NYC won’t pick up African Americans. The fact is that as long as black men are ripping off taxi drivers, the stereotype will stick. That’s not to say that whites or Hispanics or Asians, etc. won’t mug you, but as long as there’s a preponderance of crime caused by blacks, people will associate the skin color with the danger and experiential racism will continue.

    This is not blaming the victim, it is stating the hard truth that the way to overcome experiential racism is to stop the crime and the “culture of crime” that has so many people of color ensnared.

  2. says

    — blaming the victims for their victimization has been a long tactic of racists and they count upon the victims to over a period of time to internalize the message and come to blame themselves — The author doesn’t mention it but way back in the 80s or so we had a sociologist/politician, some name like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who worked hard to popularize blaming Black folk, and especially Black Men, for their people’s problems — it made his otherwise lackluster career though in fairness he is credited with coming up with some decent thought around the war on poverty. Later though he caved in to the right wing and became a shell for the racists. But as a result of his downing people of color he got appointed by “I am not a criminal” Tricky Dick Nixon as an ambassador and then Gerald Ford sent him as our permanent representative at the United Nations. Go figure.

  3. says

    Thanks for writing about this study. I saw the CNN report, and wanted to add that the only positive change noted in the study was that African American children in the study did have a higher degree of positivity towards their own race – showing that pride in being black had increased.

  4. Melissa Shipps says

    Thank you for discussing the predecessors of the CNN blurb. Will they cut this out of the history lesson in Texas? lol

    I think now we need to add multi-ethnic dolls to the study, though…

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