Mother Jones flags as “Racist Outrage of the Day” a report from a Philadelphia swim club that rescinded a deal to let minority kids from an inner-city summer camp use their pool, apparently in the wake of complaints from members. From the original report:
“I heard this lady, she was like, ‘Uh, what are all these black kids doing here?’ She’s like, ‘I’m scared they might do something to my child,’” said camper Dymire Baylor….
“When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool,” Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. “The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately.”
The next day the club told the camp director that the camp’s membership was being suspended and their money would be refunded….
The club itself, for whatever it’s worth, claims that it’s not about race—that a number of similar deals with summer camps were revoked because members were unhappy about the crowding. Maybe that’s at least partly true, though I wonder whether those members would have felt similarly “crowded” by white campers. Either way, the club obviously botched the situation very badly—but I think it’s striking that the fiasco took them by surprise. I think the reason that it did may be a belief in the common sentiment that inevitably cropped up in the comments at Mother Jones: “Children are not born racists, they are taught to be racists.”
This is true in the narrow sense that kids are not born preloaded with any particular set of racial stereotypes—but for practical purposes, it’s bollocks. Acceptance of human difference—like sharing your toys and not hitting—is one of the many liberal virtues that will not manifest automatically unless they’re taught. There’s an obvious appeal to this sort of Rousseauian notion that all our ugly tendencies come from bad social programming, but in this case it meant the club failed to expect an awkward reaction that should have been wholly predictable: “When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool.”
So… why did the kids do that? Because they’d imbibed racist attitudes from their parents? Maybe, but even if they hadn’t, that’s about how we might expect them to behave. We know from social science research that young children will, if you give them even a thin basis for considering themselves members of discrete group, develop strong patterns of in-group favoritism and, conversely, construct disparaging narratives about members of the out-group. We also have evidence from Lawrence Hirshfeld’s work that we’re primed to think of the world in terms of “natural human kinds”—and that even fairly young children are keyed to look for physical markers that will help them to construct and identify those types. That’s not to say they’ll automatically grab on to conventional racial markers as salient, but I’m betting it’s a good deal more likely when people are already heavily clustered along racial or ethnic lines.
So you take a group of kids who have at least some prior social exposure to each other, and suddenly introduce a new group of kids who look different—and likely speak and interact differently too. What did they think would happen?
Fortunately, the same social science research suggests some ways to mitigate that result. You can combine the kids into a larger group, for instance, and present them with some structured activity that involves working together on a common task or goal. But it won’t occur to you to do that if you don’t expect a problem. In a way, it’s the same fallacy that produced such shoddy planning for post-invasion Iraq: If you think democracy and universal human brotherhood must be “natural”—maybe because you equate “good” with “natural”—you fail to recognize them as pretty significant achievements that need a lot of hard-won cultural and institutional infrastructure. If racial and ethnic conflict were purely cultural artifacts imposed on our naturally colorblind dispositions, it would be something of a puzzle why so many distinct human societies have again and again decided to invent them. If we assume kids will fall into these patterns by default, we might actually be prepared to take steps to prevent them.
Update: Just to clarify, I don’t mean to deny that kids are often less afflicted with the racial hangups adults accumulate. There is, for instance, research suggesting that younger kids show much less racial clustering in their choice of playmates at school. In this case, if the incident happened as described, I think it probably made a big difference that this was a group of “outsider” children arriving at once, rather than a bunch of minority kids who arrived at different times, which would be a lot more likely to trigger a sense that there’s some coherent “them” coming in to claim “our” space.