Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race Ⅳ- Woodmam

The other deeply held assumption modern parents have is what Ashley and I have come to call the Diverse Environment Theory. If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. You don’t have to talk about race—in fact, it’s better to not talk about race. Just expose the child to diverse environments and he’ll think it’s entirely normal.

I know this mindset, because it perfectly describes the approach my wife and I took when our son, Luke, was born. When he was four months old, we enrolled him in a preschool located in San Francisco’s Fillmore/Western Addition neighborhood. One of the many benefits of the school was its great racial diversity. For years he never once mentioned the color of anyone’s skin—not at school or while watching television. We never once mentioned skin color either. We thought it was working perfectly.

Then came Martin Luther King Jr. Day at school, two months before his fifth birthday. Luke walked out of class that Friday before the weekend and started pointing at everyone, proudly announcing, “That guy comes from Africa. And she comes from Africa, too!” It was embarrassing how loudly he did this. Clearly, he had been taught to categorize skin color, and he was enchanted with his skill at doing so. “People with brown skin are from Africa,” he’d repeat. He had not been taught the names for races—he had not heard the term “black” and he called us “people with pinkish-whitish skin.” He named every kid in his schoolroom with brown skin, which was about half his class.

I was uncomfortable that the school hadn’t warned us about the race-themed lesson. But my son’s eagerness was revealing. It was obvious this was something he’d been wondering about for a while. He was relieved to have been finally given the key. Skin color was a sign of ancestral roots.

Over the next year, we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase “skin like ours.” And this notion of ours versus theirs started to take on a meaning of its own. As these kids searched for their identities, skin color had become salient. Soon, I overheard this particular white boy telling my son, “Parents don’t like us to talk about our skin, so don’t let them hear you.”

Yet our son did mention it. When he watched basketball with us, he would say, “That guy’s my favorite,” and put his finger up to the screen to point the player out. “The guy with skin like ours,” he would add. I questioned him at length, and I came to understand what was really going on. My young son had become self-conscious about his curly blond-brown hair. His hair would never look like the black players’ hairstyles. The one white, Latvian player on the Golden State Warriors had cool hair the same color as my son’s. That was the guy to root for. My son was looking for his own identity, and looking for role models. Race and hairstyle had both become part of the identity formula. Making free throws and playing tough defense hadn’t.

I kept being surprised. As a parent, I dealt with these moments explicitly, telling my son it was wrong to choose anyone as his friend, or his “favorite,” on the basis of their skin color or even their hairstyle. We pointed out how certain friends wouldn’t be in our lives if we picked friends for their color. He got the message, and over time he not only accepted but embraced this lesson. Now he talks openly about equality and the wrongfulness of discrimination.

Not knowing then what I do now, I had a hard time understanding my son’s initial impulses. I’d always thought racism was taught. If a child grows up in a non-racist world, why was he spontaneously showing race-based preferences? When did the environment that we were so proud of no longer become the message he listened to?

The Diverse Environment Theory is the core principle behind school desegregation today. Like most people, I assumed that after thirty years of school desegregation, it would have a long track record of scientific research proving that the Diverse Environment Theory works. Then Ashley and I began talking to the scholars who’ve compiled that very research.

For instance, Dr. Gary Orfield runs the Civil Rights Project, a think tank that was long based at Harvard but has moved to UCLA. In the summer of 2007, Orfield and a dozen top scholars wrote an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court supporting school desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington. After completing the 86-page document, Orfield e-mailed it to all the social scientists on his mailing list, and he received 553 signatures of support. No fancy law firms put their stamp on it. Orfield was very proud that the brief was the work of scientists, not lawyers, thereby preserving its integrity and impartiality. “It was the authentic voice of social science,” he recalled.

Privately, though, Orfield felt some frustration—even anger. He admitted the science available to make their case “wasn’t what we really wanted.” Despite having at their disposal at least a thousand research studies on desegregation’s effects, “I was surprised none were longitudinal. It really has a substantial effect, but it has to be done the right way.” Just throwing kids of different races into a school together isn’t the right way, because they can self-segregate within the school. Orfield lamented the lack of funding to train teachers. Looking at the science available to make their case, Orfield recalled, “It depressed me that we’ve invested so little in finding the benefits of integration.”

This ambiguity is visible in the text of the amicus brief. Scientists don’t like to overstate their case. So the benefits of desegregation are qualified with words like “may lead” and “can improve.” “Mere school integration is not a panacea,” the brief warns.

UT’s Bigler was one of the scholars who contributed to the brief, and she was heavily involved in the process of its creation. Her estimation of what they found is more candid than Orfield’s. “In the end, I was disappointed with the amount of evidence social psychology could muster,” she said. “Going to integrated schools gives you just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them.”

Calling attention to this can feel taboo. Bigler is an adamant proponent of desegregation in schools, on moral grounds. “It’s an enormous step backward to increase social segregation,” she commented. But it’s important for parents to know that merely sending your child to a diverse school is no guarantee they’ll have better racial attitudes than children at homogenous schools.

Race appears to be especially complex, compared to other objects of bias and discrimination. Dr. Thomas Pettigrew of the University of California at Santa Cruz analyzed over 500 research studies, all of which were examples of how exposure to others can potentially reduce bias. The studies that were most successful weren’t about racial bias—rather, they were about bias toward the disabled, the elderly, and gays. Studies in other countries show success—such as a reduction in bias among Jews and Palestinians, or whites and blacks in South Africa. When it comes to race in America, the studies show only consistent, modest benefit among college-aged students. In high schools and elementary schools, it’s a different story.

Recently, the Civil Rights Project studied high school juniors in six school districts around the country. One of those was Louisville, which appears to be a place where desegregation has had the intended benefits. Surveys of high school juniors there show that over 80% of students (of all races) feel their school experience has helped them work with and get along with members of other races and ethnic groups. Over 85% feel their school’s diversity has prepared them to work in a diverse job setting.

But other districts didn’t look so great. Lynn, Massachusetts, which is ten miles northeast of Boston, is generally regarded as another model of diversity and successful school desegregation. When its students were polled if they’d like to live in a diverse neighborhood when they grow up, about 70% of the nonwhite high school juniors said they wanted to. But only 35% of whites wanted to.

Dr. Walter Stephan, a professor emeritus at New Mexico State University, made it his life’s work to survey students’ racial attitudes after their first year of desegregation. He found that in 16% of the desegregated schools examined, the attitudes of whites toward African Americans became more favorable. In 36% of the schools, there was no difference. In 48% of the schools, white students’ attitudes toward blacks became worse. Stephan is no segregationist—he signed the amicus brief, and he is one of the most respected scholars in the field.

The unfortunate twist of diverse schools is that they don’t necessarily lead to more cross-race friendships. Often it’s the opposite.

Duke University’s Dr. James Moody—an expert on how adolescents form and maintain social networks—analyzed data on over 90,000 teenagers at 112 different schools from every region of the country. The students had been asked to name their five best male friends and their five best female friends. Moody matched the ethnicity of the student with the race of each of her named friends, then Moody compared the number of each student’s cross-racial friendships with the school’s overall diversity.

Moody found that the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down.

As a result, junior high and high school children in diverse schools experience two completely-contrasting social cues on a daily basis. The first cue is inspiring—that many students have a friend of another race. The second cue is tragic—that far more kids just like to hang with their own. It’s this second dynamic that becomes more and more visible as overall school diversity goes up. As a child circulates through school, she sees more groups that her race disqualifies her from, more tables in the lunchroom she can’t sit at, and more implicit lines that are taboo to cross. This is unmissable even if she, personally, has friends of other races.

It’s true that, for every extracurricular one kid has in common with a child of another race, the likelihood that they will be friends increases. But what’s stunning about Moody’s analysis is that he’s taken that into account: Moody included statistical controls for activities, sports, academic tracking, and other school-structural conditions that tend to desegregate (or segregate) students within the school. And the rule still holds true: more diversity translates into more division between students.

Having done its own analysis of teen friendships, a team from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, confirmed Moody’s assessment. “More diverse schools have, overall, more potential interracial contact and hence more interracial dyads of ‘potential’ friends,” these researchers explained—but this opportunity was being squandered: “The probability of interracial dyads being friends decreases in more diverse schools.”

Those increased opportunities to interact are also, effectively, increased opportunities to reject each other. And that is what’s happening.

“There has been a new resegregation among youth in primary and secondary schools and on college campuses across the country,” wrote Dr. Brendesha Tynes of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Tynes concluded, “Even in multiracial schools, once young people leave the classroom very little interrracial discussion takes place because a desire to associate with one’s own ethnic group often discourages interaction between groups.”

All told, the odds of a white high-schooler in America having a best friend of another race is only 8%. Those odds barely improve for the second-best friend, or the third best, or the fifth. For blacks, the odds aren’t much better: 85% of black kids’ best friends are also black. Cross-race friends also tend to share a single activity, rather than multiple activities; as a result, these friendships are more likely to be lost over time, as children transition from middle school to high school.

It is tempting to believe that because their generation is so diverse, today’s children grow up knowing how to get along with people of every race. But numerous studies suggest that this is more of a fantasy than a fact.

I can’t help but wonder—would the track record of desegregation be so mixed if parents reinforced it, rather than remaining silent?

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