Friday, October 19, 2007

Research roots

Last night I went to a lecture hosted by the American Educational Research Association commemorating the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. The speaker was Margaret Beale Spencer, whose research in human development seeks to blend critical race theory with experimental psychology. Most famously, she has replicated and extended the doll studies of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which were used to provide evidence that segregated education was damaging to children of color.

I could say a lot of more superficial things about the people in attendance. I observed probably the highest quotient of extremely well-educated black people in one room, ever. The hors d'oeuvre were decent, the wine was free.

But what was eminently more compelling was the lecture itself. (I got to meet Dr. Spencer and shake her hand. It's wonderful to have the access to greatness that I do here.) Dr. Spencer demonstrates how, despite arguments like the stupid one made by Justice Roberts in the recent school diversity case that avoiding race at all costs is the only way to achieve a color-blind society, children of color grow up in a cultural context that indicates to them that being black is bad. It isn't like growing up black in a black community somehow isolates kids, and then they are suddenly confronted with this cultural idea--it's fundamental to their existence.

Anyone who is black knows this. It may not take the form of outright segregation and racism, and in individual interactions, most people are friendly and respectful, but every once in a while, racism, subtle or otherwise, will make itself known. This is such an uncomfortable discussion for white people. Perhaps because subconsciously they know that acknowledging the unspoken assumption that being white is our social ideal threatens their privilege, because they personally feel no affinity for the idea, because they had nothing to do with it, etc. People who I consider friends, but who roll their eyes when I bring this up, seem to be blissfully clueless about the experience. Dr. Spencer seems to believe that this insistent ignorance is not just naive, but dangerous. She didn't have time in the lecture to articulate this, but I think the notion that suppressing acknowledgment and discussion of the role of race in child development has multiple negative implications for how we approach schooling, teaching and counseling. And insisting that it isn't a factor in inequality, but that the cause is instead primarily economic, denies the responsibility we all have for challenging this notion of white superiority and makes true equality that much more elusive.

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