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The U.S. is coming apart at the racial seams. We can help our children knit it together.

The U.S. is coming apart at the racial seams. We can help our children knit it together.

Race remains the sharpest edge along which we divide ourselves in the United States.

Four years after George Floyd’s murder, about two-in-three adults worry about race relations “a fair amount” or “a great deal.” Almost 60 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, extreme partisan gerrymanders and suppressive voting laws have fueled a new crisis of representation for people of color.

And with so many people (not all of them White) interpreting our booming racial diversity as a danger to resist rather than a resource to cultivate, the “browning of America” could well fuel even more anxiety, division and violence in the foreseeable future.

If as a society we are to author a brighter multiracial future than the one to which we seem headed, young people must lead the way. To paraphrase former President Obama, every generation remakes the world. The knowledge, skills, and convictions children develop about race today will profoundly shape their world-remaking work tomorrow.

Eight years ago, I helped found and now co-direct EmbraceRace, a national nonprofit that supports parents and other caregivers to “raise a brave generation” of children who can help mend our racial divides rather than widen them. We help teach children to think critically about race, racism, and racial inequality, and to advocate for fairness and equality on behalf of themselves, their peers and all communities.

We do this work so that children of color and all children can become leaders who envision and create the institutions of real inclusion and belonging on which the wellbeing of our pluralist society depends. From this perspective, I see three recent developments that make effective, large-scale organizing for children’s healthy racial learning a very practical possibility.

First, we now have a lot of information about how and when children develop their racial beliefs and attitudes. We know that 3-month-old babies can distinguish between same-race and other-race faces and that many toddlers can identify themselves and others by race.  We know that children “learn” about race regardless of adults’ intention to teach about race – from their parents, peers, and teachers, and from what they observe in their neighborhoods, schools, and other settings. The fact is that children start and start making sense of race long before many adults think they do or believe it appropriate to start talking to them about race.

We now know that parenting practices that ground children of color in their group’s history and culture deliver a wealth of benefits to those children. We have evidence that thoughtfully structured conversations can reduce bias in White children, and that promoting cross-race friendships can reduce prejudice and bias among all children. We know that teaching children that prejudice is changeable, rather than fixed, makes them more interested in interacting across racial lines.

Secondly, more people and organizations are bringing visibility and resources to the issue. Ten years ago, few national organizations devoted significant resources to how children engage race. Most that did focused exclusively on schools. Teaching for Change and Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) are admirable examples. They have since been joined by a growing number of mostly small-but-mighty nonprofits – like P.R.I.D.E., We Are, Wee the People, and EmbraceRace. The newer ones extend the work into homes, public libraries, museums, and other community spaces, and beyond middle childhood and into crucial early childhood years.

Many professional associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Research in Child Development, have followed suit to varying degrees.

Lastly, millions of parents are now asking for help in supporting their school-aged children to learn about race and racism. The size of the demand is new, driven largely by the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed. In December 2022 EmbraceRace commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,000 parents of children, 13 years-old and younger. Eighty-four percent of those parents were extremely open or very open to helping their children learn about race and racism. Two-in-three were extremely interested or very interested in resources to support their children’s racial learning.  Other surveys have yielded results consistent with these.

To be sure, not all parents are on board. Self-styled “parents’ rights” advocacy groups have been the public face of measures that quash teaching and learning about race and gender identity in schools. The largest of these, Moms for Liberty, boasts 300-plus chapters in 48 states. Clearly, such groups don’t represent most parents.

So we now have a sizable and rapidly growing body of information about how children develop their racial sensibilities and what caregivers can do to shape those sensibilities positively. The idea that racial learning is a vital part of children’s development in a multiracial society has real traction. And we know that millions of caregivers say that they would welcome information and guidance on how to do their part. This set of conditions creates an extraordinary – and extraordinarily important – opportunity to nurture inclusive attitudes and relationships among the rising generations of children.

We will need to organize the networks that can identify, develop, assess, and distribute the robust tools caregivers need to support the children we love. We will need to create communities of learning, accountability, and support for caregivers. We will need local, regional and national convenings that can help build relationships and working partnerships among the parent leaders, educators, health professionals, researchers, the media and others.

Above all, we cannot afford complacency. Faith in social progress, including progress on race relations and racial justice, is as American as apple pie, tacos, and black-eyed peas. However, as recent major setbacks on voting rights and racial education in schools attest, racial progress is by no means assured. Let’s fight for it.

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