Addressing Racism Means Educating Our Children Differently

Racism is the acting out of biases learned as early as preschool, research shows. If racism starts at three years old, so should science-backed strategies to reduce it.

Lori Markson: As I mentioned, I’m at Washington University which is in St. Louis. It’s actually quite a beautiful city. I moved there from Oakland, California—that was the place I had lived before that. And moving there—having only lived on both sides of the country and never in the middle, and I guess moving in particular to this city—really opened my eyes to some of the systemic racism that was apparent in the city. It’s a great place and it also has a big divide.

In fact, locally—and I’m not sure if this goes on outside the city as well—it’s often referred to as the divided city, and there’s even a line that demarcates where that divide takes place. I live one block from that line and I was seeing, regularly, all kinds of things happen that were really eye-opening to me. I think that the country’s eyes got opened even wider after Ferguson and many other events that continue to happen around the country. But as a developmental psychologist I really took a lot of this to heart because I was thinking about my kids and the kids that I was seeing in my lab, and those kids that weren’t coming into my lab and that I know lived across that line.

And what should we and could we potentially be doing, both for the kids but also looking at kids with some hope for the future? Now what we do know, sadly, in children is that there already are implicit biases that you can pick up and observe in kids at five to six years of age. This is one example of a study that my colleague Melanie Killen did. She is at University of Maryland, so close to Baltimore, and what she found is that different children will interpret these scenes very differently. And what she discovered in this particular study is that black kids actually are much more optimistic about race than white kids. Already by first grade, which is the kids she tested in this study, the white kids were having much more negative or pessimistic kinds of interpretations than the black children who were trying to have much more positive interpretations. An interpretation that’s positive, for example, would be like, “Oh, it looks like he fell off the swing and the other kid was waiting to see if he needed help.” A not so positive interpretation would be something like, “I think he pushed him off the swing so that he could use it.”

So what we were thinking about is how might we go ahead and take action and be looking at the kids? What could we do earlier? Are we already seeing that these biases are developing already in the preschool years? What might we be doing, are there ways that we can step in and intervene on this?

So we know that babies notice differences between people of all kinds, whether people speak different languages, have different color skin, act differently. We also know that by three years of age children are already noticing power and status differences, and that by five or six years of age, as I said, we’re already seeing implicit biases about these. What is happening in the preschool years? We wanted to ask a few questions. I’m only going to show you two things that we’ve been looking at in this.

Now our participants, our kids that are in these studies, are at preschools all over the city of St. Louis. I’m going to report today data that’s coming from kids that are in racially homogenous schools so they’re schools that are mostly all black kids and black teachers or mostly all white kids and white teachers. But we’re also testing at a number of mixed schools that are in the city. Most of the kids in homogenous schools also come from pretty homogenous neighborhoods of both races.And we put them in these two tasks: Accuracy task, which is just having somebody name those three objects and either saying them accurately—it’s a cup, it’s a ball, and it’s a book—or naming them wrong, inaccurately—it’s a pencil, it’s a fork, and it’s a shoe.

And what we see in lots and lots of studies previously, by many colleagues of mine and myself, is that children prefer the person who is accurate, and they also prefer to learn from that person. So what we wanted to ask them here is—all we did was change out the race of one of these speakers and ask them which one of these people would you like to have as your teacher?
And we did that in the accuracy task. So one of these was always accurate and one wasn’t. Then we also put them into a simple teacher preference task. We didn’t give them any background information. We just asked which of these would you like to have as your teacher. And these were always different people. I think I may have put the same faces up, but they’re always different.

And what we found in these racially homogenous schools is that both white and black children wanted an accurate person to teach them stuff and to be their teacher. So it didn’t matter: black, white, they wanted the accurate person. That’s who they wanted to be their teacher. However, when we simply asked them, “Which one of these people do you prefer to be your teacher?” both races of kids preferred the white teacher.

I’ll leave that there for a minute just to sink. These are three- to six-year-old kids.
Now we also put them in a marshmallow task, which has long been used to look at how kids delay gratification that has all kinds of successful outcomes. But we wanted to look at something else. More recently some findings have suggested that you might get different effects in this marshmallow test depending on how much you trust that the speaker is going to come back. So we wanted to use this as sort of a measure of trust in the speaker. And what we did is present kids—again, black or white kids—and the only difference between them was whether they got a black experimenter or a white experimenter to do the marshmallow task with them. And this is all they are. They’re sat down at a table in a room, you’re given a big enticing marshmallow and they’re told, “Just wait. I’m going to be back and if you don’t eat that before I get back I’m going to actually give you another marshmallow so you’ll have two. Bye!” And they leave the room.
They’re being filmed in there so we see what’s going on and we know how long they waited. And what we found, again, is that black kids waited exactly the same amount of time. It didn’t matter if the experimenter was white or black. The white kids waited significantly longer if the experimenter was white. Both of these things suggest to us that there is already something going on starting at three years of age and up, and that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to nip these in the bud while we still have these kids before other things can be happening. Now we are testing at mixed-race schools. I’m hoping that some of this will come out a little bit differently, but we will learn from that and see what exposure and interaction can do. We do know that cross-race friendship is one of the best predictors of lessened bias across races and other social groups.

Quickly, because I know I need to wrap up, I just want to present this idea of what it must be like in a world, for a kid, when you are a minority and everything isn’t presented to look like you. This is what a black child typically feels like when they go to the store to pick a doll or when they go to the bookstore to look at books. Looking for examples of things that represent me, that are like me, that I can relate with, that I can learn from and relate to. And so what if white kids had that same kind of understanding and it gave them a better way or a more clear view of what the world was like.

Now there is one such organization that I’ve been really lucky to partner with in St. Louis. It’s called We Stories, and We Stories is introducing white families and mixed race families to more diverse books and helping parents have conversations about race in their home.

Black families tend to have much more conversation about race, because they need to, than white families that tend to have difficultly talking about these issues with their kids. Even if they’re well-intended and want to, its challenging.

So they’re giving them the books and the resources with which to do this. And this has already really taken fire and there’s a huge wait list. They’ve already worked with I think 500-and-something families in the St. Louis area and there’s 400 or so families at least on the wait list. They can’t move along as fast as the demand.

So I’ve partnered with them, both as member in the program but also doing some of the research to see the effect of exposure of diversity through books and if that can have any kind of impact and change. One important thing about this program is that not only is it supposed to impact the kids, but it already has and we see the effects of it impacting the parents. So the parents caring about this, it’s making them much more committed to seeing change in the region and making sure that their kids grow up thinking differently.

I’ll leave you soon with a quote from Baldwin who said that, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive. Whatever it is we must survive.” But we don’t have to survive everything. Some of the things we need to figure out and we can change them.

I really have the audacity of hope for racial equity to keep moving forward, and I want to leave with this quote, which is when I was struggling—not only with the things that were going on in my city around me—but then the campaigns and elections last year. Sometimes I say, “Why should we do anything? There’s no hope.”

And this gave me some hope actually, some optimism; and if you can’t read it there’s one of these little creatures that’s saying, “Why so optimistic about 2017? What do you think it will bring?” The other one says, “I think it will bring flowers.” “Yes? How come?” “Because I am planting flowers.”

And what optimism can do is give us the faith that eventually takes us to seeing some improvement, to seeing some achievement. Nothing is going to be able to be done without the ability for us to be able to imagine what isn’t there, how things could be changed or imagine the ways in which things aren’t already, and that requires hope. So for hope and optimism, this is my view of how these come together, and I ask that you plant lots of flowers.

There's no getting around it: we're all a little bit biased. But when do harmful implicit biases, like racial judgements, form? Developmental psychologist Lori Markson and her colleagues have identified racial bias in preschool children aged three to six years old. Despite learning that kids this age—both black and white—prefer white teachers, or that white kids trust black adults less, Markson is not pessimistic about the future of race relations—in fact she's the opposite. The more data we can collect on racial bias, the more information we have to develop strategies to close social divides. Based on the research she presents here, Markson outlines three strategies—diversity exposure, bias intervention, and cross-race friendships—that can help to end racist behavior in the next generation, and hopefully in the current one. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.


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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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