Can We Speak to Younger Students about Racism?
No one knows how the new academic year of 2020-2021 will start off. Most administrators have designed a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. One thing is for sure, most of our students will have been on summer vacation during the protests that emerged around the country after George Floyd’s tragic death. Many may well have missed an opportunity to discuss racial discrimination with their teachers. Whatever form school takes this fall, we should not pass up the opportunity to engage our students in a discussion of racial and economic injustice.
Jewish Studies teachers can include a discussion of racism and discrimination in a course on Nevi’im. Our prophets teach the character of a country is judged not by how it treats the wealthy and the privileged but how it treats the disenfranchised. Amos, for example, denounces the leadership of the 8th century BCE Kingdom of Israel for treating the wealthy and guilty better than the poor and innocent. It is a society where those with money “bribe judges with silver to pervert justice against the needy and those whose cause is just, and trample the rights of the poor (2:6-7). Isaiah, roughly a contemporary of Amos, uses Orwellian terms to speak of the depravity, saying that they “call evil good and good evil and present darkness as light and light as darkness” (5:20).
Around the High Holidays, one might reflect on whether or not true change is possible. Will any positive result emerge after the current round of protests and riots? After the Parkland shooting in February 2018, students took to social media to rally in support of creating change. Little came of their protests “Books, Not Bullets” and “Protect People Not Guns.” Is any amelioration in racial injustice possible?
The Yamim Noraim come to remind us that there may be many things beyond our control, there is one thing in our control: our own conduct. Rambam famously states (Hilchot Teshuva 5:10): “Free will is granted to all people. If we desire to turn ourselves to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is ours.” It is within our control to understand and recognize privilege and how we benefit from a legacy of racism. It is within our control to object in the face of racial and economic injustice. “Should we desire to turn to the path of good and be righteous,” Rambam affirms, “the choice is also ours.”
These are heavy issues. Are they appropriate to discuss only with older students? There is good evidence that children understand concepts of fairness at a young age and are ready to learn about racial biases and their harmful effects.
In an April 2019 Phi Delta Kappan article called “Conversations with Kids about Race,” Margaret Hagerman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University and author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, notes that many White parents and educators avoid talking about race and racism with elementary-school children because they believe it’s too early to engage with controversial and disturbing topics. The problem with this approach, says Hagerman, is that decades of research have shown that young children notice racial differences early on, talk to their peers about race, and pick up explicit and implicit societal rules.
As summarized in Issue 783 of the Marshall Memo, some of her findings include:
- By three months old, children can categorize people by race.
- By three years old, children can express explicit forms of racial bias.
- By five, children of color are conscious of existing racist stereotypes about their group and are negatively affected by them.
- By eight, white children learn that it’s socially unacceptable to express racial bias, but implicit bias continues.
Black and Latinx parents talk much more directly to their children about race, making a point of preparing them to navigate what they regard as a racist social structure.
“Children are constantly developing ideas about race by interpreting information about the world around them from a range of sources,” says Hagerman. “Kids are aware of racial patterns when they see who lives in their neighborhood, or who goes to their school, or who their parents are friends with, or who is asking for money when they visit a city center. Kids develop ideas about race through the media they consume, the books they read, the debates they have on social media, the volunteering and traveling they do, the summer camps they attend, and the news that is streamed into their house every day… And these kids are making decisions every single day about how they will act in the world.”
In her own research, Hagerman has found that children “were neither too young nor too innocent to pay attention to the world around them… All of these kids knew something about the larger debates of our time, and many were excited to talk to an adult who would listen to their opinions.” There was lots of confusion and misinformation: Was Rihanna White or Black? Did Black people have extra muscles in their legs that made them better at basketball? How to report a racist bully without him finding out.
Hagerman’s interviews with white students revealed a wide range of views. One eleven-year-old said, “Racism was a problem when all those slaves were around and that like bus thing and the water fountain. I mean, everything was crazy back in the olden days… But now, I mean, since Martin Luther King and like Eleanor Roosevelt, and how she went on the bus… after the 1920s and all that, things changed.” But other students were aware of racism, had noticed Black customers being hassled in stores, and spoke out against racial profiling of Mexican-Americans in Arizona.
Students of color were clear that America was not “post-racial,” expressed anger, anxiety, and distress about the current political and racial climate, and had harsh words on President Trump’s role (“He puts inappropriate things on Twitter,” said a ten-year-old boy). Some described being taunted by students at school (“Build a wall!”) and were anxious about family members being deported.
Students told Hagerman that they wished family members and teachers had more conversations with them about these issues. She agrees, concluding that it’s important for adults to “provide young people with not only the necessary tools to help them understand race and racism but also the opportunity to be heard… Adults can never know young people’s questions, curiosities, fears, or anxieties about race in America without asking them.”