Passing on Racism to Children

Melissa Lafsky, writing at the New York Times Freakanomics blog, has an
interesting post about some new research about parents passing on racism and
how seamlessly kids pick up on parents’ racial preferences. The study, “White
children’s alignment to the perceived racial attitudes of the parents: Closer
to the mother than father,”
appears in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology (Volume 25, Number 3, September 2007 , pp. 353-357). The authors Luigi Castelli, Luciana Carraro, Silvia Tomelleri, and Antonella Amari study includes a sample of fifty-eight (N=58) 4-7 year olds, and gets around the perennial problem of social desirability in adults’ answers about race by asking children directly about how parents’ attitudes about race:

Overall, the children showed a strong in-group preference in their choice of playmates and in the attribution of positive and negative traits to White and Black peers. In addition, children reported the belief that parents would be happier if they played with a White rather than a Black child.

The headline-grabbing bit and the part that I’m sure got this onto the Freakonomics blog is this bit:

Most importantly, we found that children’s attitudes were strongly correlated with the perceived expectations and attitudes of the mothers but not the fathers. This result further supports the idea that mothers’ attitudes might be more relevant than fathers’ attitudes in the formation of racial attitudes among children.

It’s not clear why the authors deemed this finding “most important.” It could be that they are trying to counter the prevailing cultural idea that white women are less racist than white men, though this seems a bit of a stretch. It’s easy to (mis?)read this research as another contribution to the culture of mother-blame. I tend to agree with Lafsky, who points toward the fact that women still carry the overwhelming responsibility for childcare rather than any deeply-rooted “matriarchal racism” (odd turn of phrase). Still, it’s interesting to note from one of the comments (#4) at the Freakonomics blog precisely how maternal racial preferences in playmate choices get realized:

I found this article interesting, but I have to wonder if the researchers have children. I live in San Francisco, where as a white woman I AM in the minority. ( I believe SF is currently 18% white.) When my son was young he had a black friend (they met in an after-school program)who lived in the projects. I certainly wasn’t going to allow my son to play at an apartment in the projects without spending many hours to assess if the home was safe, a luxury of time that I didn’t have. Added to the local the boy’s mother worked and had several other small children. I would have to pick up and drop off the friend each time. I began discouraging the friendship not out of racism, but out of inconvenience.

If my son was asked, would he have said I didn’t want him to have black friends?

Uhm, short answer: yes.

The longer answer is that using this kind of “inconvenience” as an excuse ends up reinforcing racial segregation and racial preferences that her son no doubt picks up on loudly and clearly. This is not to say that the kinds of barriers the woman notes about what it takes to facilitate an interracial friendship in the context of racially segregated (urban) housing are not real. The fact is that her choice to discourage the friendship in the face of such “inconvenience” makes those barriers even more real. The point is that there was a time, apparently now past, that interracial friendships between children of different races were regarded as one measure of a fully realized civil rights movement. The fact that this woman doesn’t want to make that effort is a choice that privileges personal convenience over a conscious effort at dismantling white privilege. It’s a constrained choice among limited options, to be sure, but it’s a choice nonetheless.