The Door To Racism A deeper look into the Effect the Environment has on a person's Racism

By: Augustin Liu

I go to Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut. This is a school that enrolls approximately 88% Caucasian students (High). I am not doubting there is racism in Staples but it is very subtle and more hidden than full-out discrimination. Last year in 8th grade, I watched a documentary called “Mississippi Prom Night.” It was about the prom in Charleston High School in Charleston, Mississippi. In 2008, they held their first racially integrated prom. Before then, the school had always had a white prom and a black prom. Even on prom night, many white students went to a private white-only prom that their parents helped create for them. I specifically remember an interview with a father of a Caucasian girl who was dating a black boy in the documentary and how he told the interviewers that he would not allow his daughter to date the black boy because that was wrong and they would go to hell. I then did research on the racial percentages of Charleston High, and I was surprised of the data I found. The data showed me that Charleston High enrolled only 28% Caucasian students, meaning that the minorities in the school were the majority (High). How could a school with more minorities than Caucasians be so much more racist than Staples, a predominantly Caucasian school with only 12% minorities? How does the community and the environment in which someone have grown up in affect the prejudice and racism they will have in the future?

According to U.S. News, 86% of Charleston High School students are economically disadvantaged (students with free or reduced lunches) compared to only 4% of Staples High School students (High). Does poverty affect racism? The FBI 2008 Hate Crime Report shows that the states with the highest hate crimes to population ratio are New Jersey, Florida, and South Dakota (Hate). The 2013 Community Survey made by the US Census Bureau tells me that New Jersey had a poverty rate of 11-12.9%, Florida had a rate of 16-17.9%, and South Dakota had a rate of 13-15.9%. These percentages are all higher than Connecticut's, less than 11% poverty rate (Bishaw). I can therefore come to the conclusion that poverty is correlated to the amount of racism and prejudice someone will show in the future. Does parents and friends’ racism level affect one’s own?

2008 US Hate Crime Rate By State Map. (Left) SOURCE: FBI 2013 Percentage of People in Poverty for the United States Map. (Right) SOURCE: U.S Census Bureau

Research done by academics showed that parents and the environment have a significant influence on a child’s perception of racism. Harvard psychiatrist, Mahzarin Banaji, stated, “Children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days” (Burnett III). Also in a study conducted in 2006, Dr. Bigler, a researcher at UT Austin, asked children ages between 5-10, “Why do you think all 43 presidents had been white?” 26% of the children answered the question with “to have a black president is illegal” (Olson). In an experiment done by Psychology Science, children were given a box with a latch to play with, and all children figured out how to open it correctly using their fingers. After an adult came into the room and taught the children how to open the box in a super complicated way (by adding lots of unnecessary steps), the children were asked to open the box again. Instead of doing the simple way, they did the complicated way (Nauert). I interpreted this study of modeling role-model like behavior. This leads me to the conclusion that being around a racist environment will cause someone to become racist and to grow up to have racist thoughts embedded in their minds. Especially for very young people, that is when they learn the norms of a society. Where did this racism come from? Is it possible to be born with racism?

Research by University of California at Berkeley shows that humans have a natural action of separating people in their minds as “us” and “them”. People want to trust and share things with “us” and not “them”. Parents play a huge part in determining the “us” and “them” for their children (Mendoza-Denton). If a child has no parental exposure and grows up in an environment where the children themselves can determine the “us” and “them”, I predict that they would not had determined the “us” and “them” by race but instead by how other people treat them and the experiences they have had with different people. Children are not born racist. Parents and the environment heavily determine a child’s future prejudice.

Photo of a Caucasian Boy and African-American Girl Playing. SOURCE: Psychology Today

Going back to the question “How does the community and the environment in which someone grows up in affect the prejudice and racism they will have in the future?”, we can consider the many Caucasian students in the “Mississippi Prom Night” documentary who did not go to the integrated prom but instead hosted their own whites-only prom. They did that because of the way they grew up. Most of those kids were in poverty which, in my studies, was found to be closely correlated to racism. Their parents were racists, and therefore they learned from their parents and became racists as well. Children with racist parents are so used to growing up with racist ideas that it has become normal for them to be prejudice. I know that I can’t change the way racists think, but I believe that if schools focus more on teaching anti-racist ideals, such as promoting an environment in which different races can work and study together, to younger children, especially preschoolers, we might be able to stop the next generation of racism and put an end to it for good.

Works Cited

Bishaw, Alemayehu, and Kayla Fontenot. "Poverty: 2012 and 2013." Poverty: 2012 and 2013 (n.d.): 4. US Census Bureau. US Census Bureau, Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

Burnett III, James H. "Harvard Researcher Says Children Learn Racism Quickly - The Boston Globe." The Boston Globe, 10 June 2012. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

"Hate Crime 2008." FBI. FBI, 08 Oct. 2010. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

"High School Rankings." U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

Mendoza-Denton, Rodolfo, Ph.D. "Are We Born Racist | Nature of Prejudice." Berkeley Wellness. Berkeley Wellness | University of California, 25 June 2015. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

Nauert, Rick, Ph.D. "Modeling Behavior for Children Has Long-Lasting Effects." Psych Central News. Psych Central News, 06 Oct. 2015. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

Olson, Kristina R., Ph.D. "Are Kids Racist?" Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.

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