– A white child looks at a picture of a black child and says she’s bad because she’s black. A black child says a white child is ugly because he’s white. A white child says a black child is dumb because she has dark skin.
This isn’t a schoolyard fight that takes a racial turn, not a vestige of the “Jim Crow” South; these are American schoolchildren in 2010.
Nearly 60 years after American schools were desegregated by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and more than a year after the election of the country’s first black president, white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children also have a bias toward white, according to a new study commissioned by CNN.
Renowned child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, a leading researcher in the field of child development, was hired as a consultant by CNN. She designed the pilot study and used a team of three psychologists to implement it: two testers to execute the study and a statistician to help analyze the results.
Her team tested 133 children from schools that met very specific economic and demographic requirements. In total, eight schools participated: four in the greater New York City area and four in Georgia.
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In each school, the psychologists tested children from two age groups: 4 to 5 and 9 to 10.
Since this is a pilot study and not a fully funded scientific study, the sample size and race selection were limited. But according to Spencer, it was satisfactory to yield conclusive results. A pilot study is normally the first step in creating a larger scientific study and often speaks to overall trends that require more research.
Full doll study results
Spencer’s test aimed to re-create the landmark Doll Test from the 1940s. Those tests, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, were designed to measure how segregation affected African-American children.
The Clarks asked black children to choose between a white doll and — because at the time, no brown dolls were available — a white doll painted brown. They asked black children a series of questions and found they overwhelmingly preferred white over brown. The study and its conclusions were used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of American schools.
1947 Doll Test results
In the new study, Spencer’s researchers asked the younger children 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 older children were asked the same questions using the same cartoon pictures, and were then asked a series of questions about a color bar chart that showed light to dark skin tones.
The tests showed that white children, as a whole, responded with a high rate of what researchers call “white bias,” identifying the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes. Spencer said even black children, as a whole, have some bias toward whiteness, but far less than white children.
“All kids on the one hand are exposed to the stereotypes” she said. “What’s really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs and attitudes and preferences than the African-American children.”
Spencer says this may be happening because “parents of color in particular had the extra burden of helping to function as an interpretative wedge for their children. Parents have to reframe what children experience … and the fact that white children and families don’t have to engage in that level of parenting, I think, does suggest a level of entitlement. You can spend more time on spelling, math and reading, because you don’t have that extra task of basically reframing messages that children get from society.”
iReport: Where do we go from here?
Spencer was also surprised that children’s ideas about race, for the most part, don’t evolve as they get older. The study showed that children’s ideas about race change little from age 5 to age 10.
“The fact that there were no differences between younger children, who are very spontaneous because of where they are developmentally, versus older children, who are more thoughtful, given where they are in their thinking, I was a little surprised that we did not find differences.”
Spencer said the study points to major trends but is not the definitive word on children and race. It does lead her to conclude that even in 2010, “we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.”