When it comes to US preschools, it’s segregation-as-usual. That must change.
The costs of social segregation are etched in newspaper headlines and reflected in our polarized politics.
A good friend, Erica Frankenberg, Associate Professor of Education at Penn State University and co-director of The Center for Education and Civil Rights, just published a devastating research report entitled Segregation at an Early Age. In it she reports on data showing high levels of racial segregation in preschools, with significant consequences for the social development of children. The following is the foreword I wrote for Erica’s excellent report (links added).
The national backdrop against which this report appears is one marked by racial turbulence — the Movement for Black Lives, the ongoing backlash against Muslim Americans, the movement for mass de-carceration, talk of immigrant deportation forces, and more. Racial attitudes and institutional practices continue to shape crucial outcomes from the makeup of our social networks to relations between police and the communities they “serve and protect” to the contours of our national politics.
Like all of us, each in our way, our children are taking it in. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Leadership Center found that the 2016 presidential campaign “is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.”
This past spring, my 7-year-old daughter emerged from her room in tears an hour after bedtime. Why? She was afraid that the wall Donald Trump wants to build would literally divide our multiracial, four-toned family in half.
As much as many white parents in particular are tempted to try, we cannot “protect” our children from race. By six months of age infants are noticing racial difference; by age four or five, children have begun to internalize racial bias. As parents, teachers, and other caring adults in the lives of children, our challenge is to nurture children who have the language, discernment, and inclusive sensibilities they will need to envision and create the institutions of authentic racial inclusion and belonging that remain among the United States’ most pressing works in progress.
The work of preparing our children for that vital task must start very early, earlier than many of us suppose — at home and wherever families gather in the company of others, not least racial “others.”
We know something about how to do good intergroup relational work. We know intergroup contact produces benefits under four conditions: social equality among the groups, collaborative work, common goals, and the support of relevant authorities. A meta-analysis of 515 research studies by Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp found that intergroup contact reduced prejudice in 94 percent of those studies representing a wide range of contexts and “minority” groups. They found (weaker) prejudice reduction even when not all four conditions were met.
Preschools are a crucial site for the racial socialization of children. Fully two in three 3- to 5-year-olds enroll in preprimary programs. Moreover, the optimal conditions for beneficial interracial contact are normative in preschools, if not always achieved in practice.
In this context, the evidence presented in this report of “segregation at an early age” is striking, consequential, and heartbreaking. Faith in social progress, including progress on racial attitudes and race relations, is as American as apple pie. However, racial progress takes work. The pie won’t bake itself.
Professor Frankenberg’s report, the first I have seen to document the stark lack of diversity in our preschools, suggests that in too many communities we continue to fail our children. As long as we fail to create the integrative conditions that support children to see each other as fully human across lines of race and class,
The promising news is that in the midst of the present turmoil more and more people of all racial stripes are calling for ways to do the work of racial healing and justice in our homes, schools, and communities. It is my fervent hope that this brief report can help sound the alarm about the imperative to begin that work with the youngest among us.
Parents, teachers, daycare providers, community members, superintendents, elected officials and policymakers — we all have important parts to play.
All hands on deck, people.
Andrew Grant-Thomas and his partner, Melissa, co-founded EmbraceRace (@raceembrace), an emerging community of support to nurture healthy, happy kids in a world where race matters. He is a long-time social and racial justice worker and, more recently, the doting daddy to two young brown girls. Knowing what he knows, and given the exam- ples of people everywhere doing heroic work to push back against injustice, racial and otherwise, he believes it would be obscene for him not to lend his effort to that struggle.