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Racism. You Know, for Kids.

July 10th, 2009 · 22 Comments

Mother Jones flags as “Racist Outrage of the Day” a report from a Philadelphia swim club that rescinded a deal to let minority kids from an inner-city summer camp use their pool, apparently in the wake of complaints from members.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.

Tags: Science · Sociology


       

 

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sidereal // Jul 10, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Obviously much hinges on the age of the ‘kids’, but speaking as a parent and acquaintance of a large number of parents, I would consider it very unusual for a child under the age of, say, 12 to be rendered so uncomfortable by kids of a different social class or ethnic group that they would independently leave the pool. And I don’t mean because they’ve been indoctrinated with egalitarian thinking. I think it’s just that most factors that might create social tension are completely lost on children who haven’t acquired those finer points yet. Add to that the fact that being in a pool is presumably fun and children are universally notorious for prizing a fun experience over all potential hindrances, and I just don’t find it plausible that the kids just all left the pool because there were suddenly a bunch of black kids in there, too.

    Which is to say that, if the incident did happen as described, I’m 98% sure it’s because the parents of the white kids told them to get out of the pool.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jul 10, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to deny that kids aren’t somewhat *less afflicted* with the racial hangups adults accumulate. There’s also research suggesting that younger kids, for example, show much less racial clustering in their choice of playmates at school, for instance. 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.

  • 3 Emma Zahn // Jul 10, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Nice analysis.

    Just thought to add, that there was probably an alpha kid or two that led the exit.

  • 4 stephen // Jul 10, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Excellent post, Julian!

    It seems that children would be especially sensitive to group affiliation. From a natural selection stand point, adolescent “color blindness” does not seem like something that would have experienced a lot of positive selection pressure.

  • 5 Paul Wright // Jul 10, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Are you trying to say that these swim club kids from Philadelphia had never seen black kids before and so would have separated themselves naturally?

    Not like any big city I’ve seen.

    And, as a kid, it took a lot to convince me to leave the pool.

    Would they have bailed if it was a bunch of asian kids? Or if a dog had jumped into the pool?

    Nope, I don’t have factual answers either. Just opinions.

  • 6 Mike // Jul 10, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Judith Rich Harris discusses this phenomenon of children self-segregating in the Nurture Assumption (referencing the Sherif study among others).

    If I recall correctly from the book, kids will self-segregate first by age, then by sex, then by race.

  • 7 Another Mike // Jul 11, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Predictably, this “racist outrage” gets national attention, while the racially motivated gang assault of a White family in Akron never makes it past the local news. It’s not like the national media are skipping over the latter because such crimes are so rare — the vast majority of interracial violence is committed against Whites. (See Walter Williams, “An Ugly Conspiracy of Silence.” A black writer, BTW.)

    It’s fun to watch racial egalitarians (a/k/a “race deniers”) try and explain away reality. At least Julian, via Hirshfeld, admits that ingroup vs. outgroup sentiments are largely inborn. They would, therefore, seem to serve a useful purpose in the eyes of nature.

    A large group of darker non-Whites (as opposed to East Asians) in one place is much more likely to evince, um, “rowdy” behavior than a White group of similar size. We all know that to be true, so let’s not play games.

  • 8 Randy // Jul 11, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Clearly what’s needed to test your hypothesis is for a few dozen white kids to show up at a pool full of black kids and see what happens. I’d bet one squazillion dollars none of the black kids (or their parents) would flip out, or that the pool management would kick them all out and then make a statement that included the word ‘complexion’.

  • 9 A Normal Person Complains About The Chlorine « Around The Sphere // Jul 12, 2009 at 11:47 am

    [...] Julian Sanchez: 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.” [...]

  • 10 Another Mike // Jul 12, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    The club no doubt realized that if they allowed the non-Whites to remain, they’d see a mass exodus of White membership fees. Now that a class action suit has been filed, they’ll end up paying anyway.

    Unless you’re talking about deluded White liberals who only experience “diversity” through the television screen, Randy, you won’t be seeing sane White parents taking their kids to a majority black pool anytime soon.

  • 11 Emily // Jul 12, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Interesting post. Yes, in-group/out-group thinking is pretty innate, and you may be right that the “big group of outsiders descending” factor was significant. However, I wouldn’t be as dismissive of environmental factors. The (admittedly hearsay) quote from the lady worried about black kids hurting hers suggests that this is a community fraught with racial tensions. So parental and social influence is significant here. It overrides the younger kids’ natural tendencies to care less about those things, and it *focuses* the in/out-group mentality on a particular racial category. I’d bet this incident wouldn’t happen in a large number of communities if put to experimental test, and agree that it would be less likely to happen with a bunch of Asian kids. It’d be interesting to try Randy’s experiment too, though again, in a REALLY racially tense neighborhood, might have the same result.

    On another point, if the pool attendants actually said “no minorities allowed in the club” at the time of the booting, that’d sure be cause for outrage.

  • 12 Another Mike // Jul 12, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Emily, ask yourself why some communities are “fraught with racial tension.”

    Check out “The Downside of Diversity,” by Michael Jonas, Boston Globe, 8/5/07.

    Let’s also recall last year’s Democrat primary, where racial animus was strongest not in the suburban and rural White areas, but in the White ethnic enclaves in or near the large, “diverse” cities.

  • 13 Walker // Jul 12, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Terrific post.

  • 14 Emily // Jul 13, 2009 at 1:27 am

    Mmk. That piece does dovetail quite a bit with this post, and does make sense. There’s still a lot that goes into making this particular kind of incident happen, though, a lot of give and take of innate and learned. That said, I think the most important thing to take away is the focus on how to deal with these issues moving forward, which Julian addressed well. And from the article you cited, “‘It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity,’ [Putnam] writes in the new report. ‘It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable.'”

  • 15 Jeremy // Jul 13, 2009 at 7:32 am

    This is an interesting and thought-provoking post, though it should be noted that the children didn’t just go on and hop out of the pool on their own; their parents and grandparents played a role in, erm, aiding their exit.

    I’d actually argue that the more damaging social science phenomenon going on here is not in-group affiliation and grouping but laissez-faire racism. I wrote about it as applied to this incident a bit myself, but basically it’s about attributing negative stereotypes to folks based on perceived behaviors, rather than sheer biology/skin pigment.

    So, in large part at least, these kids’ parents and the Club management were working with stereotypes of black cultural/behavioral inferiority.

    In a sense, this is our current “pattern of default” within the structure of race in America, but it calls for wholly different strategies to combat it than other learned behaviors/beliefs.

  • 16 You’ve Gotta Be Carefully Taught | Xenia Institute // Jul 13, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    [...] outrage has given blogger Julian Sanchez a springboard to jump off in his argument against the myth that children aren…, or to put it in the language of Hollywood musicals: “You Gotta Be Carefully Taught.” [...]

  • 17 Another Mike // Jul 13, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    “Ethnocentric conservatism,” as referenced by study author Putnam in the Globe article, is absent from the active US political scene. Neo-cons are multiculturalists as evidenced by their redefinition of America as a “proposition nation.” Observe the GOP’s nonstop dance around the subject of race.

    Jeremy speaks of “perceived behaviors.” Is one’s perception always faulty?

    Given five decades of official and unofficial egalitarian propaganda, not to mention zealously burnished representations of AA’s and other non-Whites in all media arenas, why are negative stereotypes of these groups so persistent?

    If one is a long-term resident of a major American urban center, and honest to oneself, answering that question requires little reflection.

  • 18 Andrew Ator // Jul 14, 2009 at 2:15 am

    As a former lifeguard that spent his summers watching children doggy paddle in the shallow end, I can say with certainty that black people can’t swim and white people are just fat enough to float.

    This probably all stems back to when the white man gave the black man rabbies as a means of improving the output of slaves as the natural aversion to water created an ever-fervent work force. The gains created in economic development reverberated throughout society’s timeline as the white man later came to understand the potential danger in crossing a rabid black man. In modern times this plays out as historical minorities overtake the public sector and use of public services, cashing in on the dividends of centuries of unnatural selection.

  • 19 Dom // Jul 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Let’s take a test that was designed to be as fair as possible to all races. Let’s assume that only whites pass that test. I’d bet one squazillion dollars that test will be shut down more quickly than this pool. And I’d bet another squazillion dollars that the idiot who did this will rise to the Supreme Court.

    I wonder if Mother Jones ever called that decision a “racist outrage”.

  • 20 Barry // Jul 15, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Julian, time for a fumigation.

  • 21 sidereal // Jul 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I think it’s awesome that people like Another Mike exist and are vocal, though thankfully in small number. It’s refreshing alternative to the sizable number of (primarily conservative) peeps who share his beliefs but are afraid to speak them.

    Relentless capitalization of White is a nice little flourish.

  • 22 Dave Lizewski // Jan 25, 2011 at 1:32 am

    “Unless you’re talking about deluded White liberals who only experience “diversity” through the television screen, Randy, you won’t be seeing sane White parents taking their kids to a majority black pool anytime soon.”

    Many sane White parents do take their kids to majority black pools. While there are some “limousine liberals” who “experience “diversity” through the television screen” – there are real ones that have real diversity

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