Race Shouldn't Be a Black and White Issue


This week on CNN, Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien are co-presenting a series called Black or White: Kids on Race.  According to their admittedly unscientific pilot study at the heart of the piece, “white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children also have a bias toward white.”  University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, who designed the study, says that white bias is not as strong among black children as it is among white children. 

The study is basically a recreation of the famous “Doll Test” of the 1940’s.  The results of that test were used to argue for desegregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education.  In the modern version, students ages 4-10 at four schools in New York City and four schools in Georgia were asked to point to “one of five cartoon pictures that varied in skin color from light to dark” in response to commands such as, “Show me the dumb child.”  Despite the fact that all the cartoon faces were smiling and dressed in the same blue outfit, children more frequently identified the darker-skinned cartoons as having negative characteristics.  (The cartoon characters were all girls, by the way.  I wonder if the study results might have changed if the characters were all boys or children of both sexes and/or characters showing different emotions/attitudes.) 

It’s hardly fair to ask young children such leading questions when they don’t have the capacity to analyze the fact that they’re being set-up.  More importantly, has CNN considered that by asking children to choose between black and white they only serve to identify black and white as being different and therefore exacerbate whatever lingering racial tension there is in America?

CNN’s coverage of race has typically been very good.  Black in America and Latino in America were both well-written and well-researched pieces, providing valuable insight into the lives on non-white Americans.  But going into America’s classrooms and purposely baiting kids into showing some level of racism feels plain old wrong at this point.  That’s not to say that the dream of “post-racial America” has come true, but I think it would be fairly easy for CNN to have taken footage of black and white children at play, cooperating and learning together.  Unnecessarily rehashing the famous “Doll Test” of the 1940’s feels like an obvious attempt to gain viewers by hammering a hot-button issue to death, especially given that three years ago, a young Harlem girl named Kiri Davis made a fairly well-known short film covering the same territory.  In 2007, it seemed groundbreaking.  But after the election of Barack Obama, this kind of reporting is, as the kids say, played out.

CNN’s Kids on Race continues tonight at 10 pm on AC360.

Photo: Frerieke via Flickr