Are younger gen­er­a­tions less racist than past ones?

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - By Mar­garet Hager­man

In Amer­ica’s chil­dren, we of­ten see hope for a bet­ter fu­ture, es­pe­cially when it comes to re­duc­ing racism.

Each new gen­er­a­tion of white peo­ple, the think­ing goes, will nat­u­rally and in­evitably be more open-minded and tol­er­ant than pre­vi­ous ones.

But do we have any rea­son to be­lieve this? Should we have faith that to­day’s white kids will help make our so­ci­ety less racist and more eq­ui­table?

Pre­vi­ous re­search has had mixed find­ings. So, in or­der to ex­plore more fully what white kids think about race, I went straight to the source: white chil­dren them­selves.

In my new book, “White Kids: Grow­ing Up with Priv­i­lege in a Racially Di­vided Amer­ica,” I ex­plore how 36 white, af­flu­ent kids think and talk about race, racism, priv­i­lege and in­equal­ity in their ev­ery­day lives.

The lim­i­ta­tions of sur­vey data

Be­fore be­gin­ning my re­search, I looked at what pre­vi­ous stud­ies on the racial at­ti­tudes of young white peo­ple had found.

Ac­cord­ing to some re­searchers, we do have rea­son to be hope­ful.

Us­ing sur­vey data, they found that young white peo­ple are ex­press­ing less prej­u­dice than gen­er­a­tions be­fore them. For in­stance, white sup­port for seg­re­gated schools – a tra­di­tional mea­sure of racial prej­u­dice – has dra­mat­i­cally de­creased over a 50-year pe­riod. And sur­veys show that younger whites are less likely to ex­press racial stereo­types than older whites.

But a sec­ond group of re­searchers dis­agreed. They found that whites to­day simply ar­tic­u­late racial prej­u­dice in new ways.

For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to na­tional sur­vey data, high school se­niors are in­creas­ingly ex­press­ing a form of prej­u­dice that so­ci­ol­o­gist Ty­rone For­man calls “racial ap­a­thy” – an “in­dif­fer­ence to­ward so­ci­etal, racial, and eth­nic in­equal­ity and lack of en­gage­ment with race-re­lated so­cial is­sues.”

Racial ap­a­thy is a more pas­sive form of prej­u­dice than ex­plicit ar­tic­u­la­tions of big­otry and racial hos­til­ity. But such ap­a­thy can none­the­less lead white peo­ple to sup­port poli­cies and prac­tices that align with the same racist logic of the past, like a lack of sup­port for so­cial pro­grams and poli­cies de­signed to ad­dress in­sti­tu­tional racism or an in­dif­fer­ence to­ward the suf­fer­ing of peo­ple of color.

Other re­searchers ques­tion the abil­ity of sur­veys to cap­ture hon­est re­sponses from whites about race-re­lated ques­tions or to de­scribe the com­plex­ity of whites’ per­spec­tives on race.

As use­ful as sur­veys can be, they don’t al­low us to fully un­der­stand how white peo­ple ex­plain, jus­tify or de­velop their views on race.

What the kids are say­ing

In or­der to bet­ter un­der­stand how white chil­dren think about race, I in­ter­viewed and ob­served 30 af­flu­ent, white fam­i­lies with kids be­tween the ages of 10 and 13 liv­ing in a Mid­west­ern met­ro­pol­i­tan area. Over the course of two years, I im­mersed my­self in the ev­ery­day lives of these fam­i­lies, ob­serv­ing them in pub­lic and in the home, and in­ter­view­ing the par­ents and the kids. A few years later, when the kids were in high school, I rein­ter­viewed a sub­set of the orig­i­nal group.

These chil­dren had some shared un­der­stand­ings of race, like the idea that “race is the color of your skin.” But when I brought up topics like racism, priv­i­lege and in­equal­ity, their re­sponses started to di­verge, and there was more vari­a­tion than I an­tic­i­pated.

Some kids told me that “racism is not a prob­lem any­more.” But, oth­ers told me in great de­tail about the racial wealth gap, em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion, un­equal school­ing, and racist treat­ment of black kids by po­lice.

As an 11-year-old named Chris ex­plained:

“I think that the white kids, since they have more power in gen­eral in so­ci­ety ... dis­ci­plinary ac­tions aren’t brought down as hard upon them. But when it’s, you know, a black kid get­ting in trou­ble with the po­lice ... I think peo­ple are go­ing to be tougher with them, be­cause, you know, [black kids] can’t re­ally fight back as well.”

Although some of the kids had much greater un­der­stand­ings of the his­tory of racism in Amer­ica, oth­ers flat­tened time and lumped all of African-Amer­i­can his­tory to­gether, while also mix­ing up names and dates.

One 11-year-old named Natalie told me:

“Racism was a prob­lem when all those slaves were around and that, like, bus thing and the wa­ter fountain. I mean, every­thing was crazy back in the olden days . ... But now, I mean, since Martin Luther King and, like, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and how she went on the bus. And she was African-Amer­i­can and sat on the white part . ... Af­ter the 1920s and all that, things changed.”

When it came to the un­der­stand­ings of priv­i­lege and in­equal­ity, some kids made com­ments like, “There’s no such thing [as priv­i­lege]. Ev­ery­one gets what they de­serve in life, if they work for it.”

Other kids dis­agreed, like 11-year-old Aaron:

“I think [whites] just kind of have the up­side . ... And since much of so­ci­ety is run by white peo­ple any­way, which is an up­side, more white peo­ple are, you know, ac­cepted into jobs, so they get the up­side. So, yeah, I do think they have the up­side.”

I also found that many of the chil­dren ex­pressed forms of racial ap­a­thy. When a black teenager was shot and killed by a po­lice of­fi­cer in the com­mu­nity, 16-yearold Jes­sica told me that she “did not care” about black peo­ple be­ing killed be­cause they “ob­vi­ously did some­thing to de­serve it.”

But some kids, like 16-yearold Char­lotte, had a very dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion:

“It should all be stopped. There is ac­tu­ally a prob­lem and a sys­tem that al­lowed this to hap­pen . ... Tech­ni­cally, legally, what that of­fi­cer did was ‘okay’? It’s like, well, maybe that’s the prob­lem. Maybe killing black peo­ple shouldn’t be legally ‘okay,’ you know?”

The im­por­tance of a child’s so­cial world

Why such stark dif­fer­ences among these kids?

It wasn’t simply a mat­ter of these kids re­peat­ing the views of their par­ents.

I found that their per­spec­tives were shaped less by what their par­ents ex­plic­itly said about race and more by the so­cial en­vi­ron­ments these kids grew up in – and how their par­ents con­structed these en­vi­ron­ments.

De­ci­sions par­ents made about where to live, where to send their kids to school, which ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties to en­roll them in, where they trav­eled and what me­dia they con­sumed work to cre­ate what I re­fer to as a child’s “racial con­text of child­hood.”

Within this racial con­text, kids de­vel­oped ideas about race by ob­serv­ing and in­ter­pret­ing what was go­ing on around them. And be­cause of im­por­tant vari­a­tions in these so­cial en­vi­ron­ments, the chil­dren made sense of race in dif­fer­ent ways.

In this sense, my work builds on ex­ist­ing schol­ar­ship on how chil­dren de­velop un­der­stand­ings about race and racism in the con­text of fam­ily, place, early school ex­pe­ri­ences,ele­men­tary and sec­ondary schools, child care and even sum­mer camp.

All of these as­pects of a child’s so­cial en­vi­ron­ment play a role in shap­ing how they learn about race.

Are white kids less racist than their grand­par­ents? My re­search with kids doesn’t give us any rea­son to be­lieve that each new gen­er­a­tion of white peo­ple will nat­u­rally or in­evitably hold more open­minded and tol­er­ant view­points on race than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

Dis­man­tling racism in the United States will re­quire more than just pas­sive hope.


Wil­liam Hink­ley, 5, of Coral Springs, Fla., stands with his mother, Ge­lena, dur­ing the Rally Against Hate in West Palm Beach, Fla. His fa­ther, Joe, brought his five chil­dren be­cause he be­lieves it is im­por­tant to teach them to stand up against ha­tred.


Katharine Pruet­tPon­vert passed out can­dles at the anti-racism vigil On Aug.12, 2017, in Austin. The vigil was held to honor those who were killed or in­jured as they protested against a white na­tion­al­ist rally in Char­lottesville, Va.

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