Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Your Baby Racist?

That is the headline from the cover of Newsweek for the week of September 14, 2009.

It gets your attention, and it’s meant to. It directs you to an article within the magazine (pages 53 through 60) by authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman are releasing their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, and the Newsweek article is part of the promotion associated with their book tour. You can also read their blog on the Newsweek Web site.

The headline illustrates the cultural divide in America. I’m a Republican, so my reaction to the headline was, “What the hell is this about!” If you are a non-Republican, you probably thought, “This looks like some interesting research on a disturbing problem in America.”

Why the difference in reaction? It has to do with that unsettling theme in our culture that Republicans are racists. Some make light of it – I love Stacy McCain’s use of the word racism. (raaaaacism!) – but it still stings. Depending on where you are located in the political spectrum, it either hurts or it validates.

The article itself describes the work of Birgitte Vittrup in 2006. It notes that children as young as six months judge other children based on skin color. The rhetorical question is posed, “What’s a parent to do?”

The word that gets my attention is that children “judge” others. I think that word choice is significant. Children are not discerning the traits of other children. Rather, they are JUDGING other children. The article points out that this disturbing result comes from a sample of 100 Caucasian families in the Austin, Texas area.

Why am I worked up over this article? The reader is being told about an earth-shaking research study. The authors relate stories they have heard from parents and teachers about how they struggle to talk about race with their children.

The context is that this is a dialogue that parents and teachers must have with children. They must also talk about things like (shhh!) sex. These are the “difficult talks.”

I rebel against race being one of those difficult talks that must take place. It elevates the issue of skin tone to something akin to a life passage. I know that after the death of a family member, you might have the “Death Talk” with a youngster. Similarly, at some point you might have the “Sex Talk” with your child. But must we have the “Race Talk”? This implies that APPEARANCE is as significant as death!

If we are going to have “The Talk” about skin tone, should we have one about hair length? How about height and weight? Maybe there’s the ethnicity talk or the talk about religion. How about the anti-Republican talk?

As you might surmise, I take offense at the idea that we must judge people based upon appearance. It seems contrived. Must we have “The Race Talk” in order to move into a post-racial era?

Let me put a different context on this.

Let’s say that race is simply a political issue. If, as a politician, you classify a political group as a racist group, then it becomes important to keep that classification at the forefront of the American consciousness. If racism is perceived to be a problem, and you can convince people that those accused of racism are bad people, then you have a cause that can increase your political power. It feels good!

But is it… “good”?

The writers of NurtureShock look at 100 Caucasian families around Austin, Texas. That doesn’t sound too bad. The article characterizes the families (page 53) in this fashion: “It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity.”

You will have to ask yourself at this point, “Is that the impression I am keeping in mind?” Is this a study about multiculturalists?

What if it’s a study about white people in Texas? The distinction is important. It has to do with that “one-off characterization” effect, where you don’t directly criticize Republicans. Rather, this is simply a study of white people in Texas. You are left to connect the dots.

Furthermore, did you notice there is no study of a group of 100 families with dark skin tone, or varying skin tone - not even as a control group? The writers of NurtureShock simply look at 100 Caucasian families and see racial problems amongst the study participants.

At this point, you probably think I’m going overboard. But remember that we recently saw an instance of an individual who was able to discern the intent of a person who acts like a Republican, and that intent was racist in nature. Maureen Dowd, an opinion columnist for the New York Times recently wrote about her perception of a remark by Republican Joe Wilson. She said that when Representative Wilson called out “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress, his intent was to say, “You lie, boy.” Ms. Dowd believes she can divine what is in the hearts of Republicans.

When you hear Republicans accused of being racists, or see a study affirming the racism of Republicans, you might question if there is a political purpose behind the act. Why is it that our culture sees the political party that was expressly formed to uphold the Constitution and fight against slavery as “the party of racism”?

Maybe that’s a good question for a new study.

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