The Trayvon Martin shooting has led to a lot of soul-searching about how Americans approach race. And it turns out that our understanding of racial dynamics begin to take shape early in life — and not always in a good way, according to research that Anderson Cooper and CNN commissioned from the University of Maryland. Child psychologist Melanie Killen showed groups of six year-olds images that were designed to be ambiguous: one child is on the ground looking sad, but it’s impossible to tell if he fell or he was pushed. Then Killen and her team asked the children questions like “What’s happening in this picture?”, “Are these two children friends?” and “Would their parents like it if they were friends?”
Researchers found that the black first-graders tended to see the images in a positive, helpful light; only 38 percent offered a negative interpretations (ie, “Chris pushed Alex off the swing.”) In contrast, 70 percent of white children gave a negative interpretation of the scene.
One explanation for the divergent views of the same image is that black parents might have more open and overt discussions about race with their children. “African American parents … are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination,” said Killen, adding, “they’re certainly talking about issues of race and what it means to be a different race and when it matters and when it doesn’t matter.” In contrast, white parents might believe that there’s no need to address race because children are colorblind: “They sort of have this view that if you talk about race, you are creating a problem.”
But the research clearly shows that children are aware of racial differences from an early age. And if discussions about race don’t happen at home, the kids will absorb messages from the culture at large — which can be problematic.
Oh, and that optimism about interracial friendships that black six year-olds have? It fades by the time they’re thirteen. At that age, both black and white children have equally pessimistic views. The one upside of the study? Children at racially diverse and majority black schools were less negative than those at majority-white schools.