Racism and the Education of Young Children

by James P. Comer - 1989

This article discusses ways that racism affects child development, the historic racial experiences and reaction to them that has made it difficult for society to address racism, and the implications of racism and its history for the preparation and practice of early childhood professionals. (Source: ERIC)

In the child's development, when and how does the concept of race arise? How can primary and secondary caregivers help a child in a racist society develop a positive self-image and achieve a healthy understanding of racial and cultural diversity?

A four-year-old black child slapped her doll and said, “Shut up, you black bitch!” Her white teacher, horrified and confused by the incident, retreated without a response. In a second situation, several white classmates of a black child spoke to her in racially derogatory ways. Her mother complained to her teacher and to the principal. They both acknowledged the incidents but indicated that the children intended no harm. The principal did eventually agree to move the child to the classroom of a second white teacher at the same grade level. Several days later the child sent her mother a card on which she had drawn a big red heart with a note that read: “Thank you, Mommy, my teacher touched me [an affectionate hug] today.”

In the first case, the child and her family were victims of long-standing societal racism that had been institutionalized and internalized, and was being prepared for transmission to the next generation. Because the pervasiveness and multiple manifestations of racism have not been acknowledged, nor adequately addressed, the teacher was not in a position to help minimize its harmful effects. In the second situation, overt racism was acceptable, harmful, but limited in the case of this particular child largely because of the action of her mother. Because of racism and its pervasiveness, however, its victims are unable, disproportionately, to limit its effects and ancillary problems.

Racism interferes with the normal development of those children subjected to it. It hampers their ability to function at their full potential as children and, later, as adults. This contributes to their greater involvement in social problems such as poor school learning, juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and substance abuse. These problems decrease our human resources, drain our financial resources, and intensify intergroup relationship problems. They permit and promote harmful assumptions that, in turn, interfere with the development and functioning of majority-group children, adults, and institutions.

It is estimated that by the early 1990s minorities will make up one-third of our work force.1 Unless minority children are fully prepared to participate in the job market of tomorrow, the economy will be adversely affected. Unless minority and majority children are prepared to function adequately in an open society, our quality of life will be lowered and our democratic ideals will never be realized. Once racist attitudes, values, and ways are established in individuals, change is difficult. Thus, prevention in early childhood is extremely important, yet early childhood education has not given adequate attention to this matter.

In this article, I will discuss the ways that racism affects child development. Then, I will briefly discuss the historic racial experiences and reaction to them that have made it difficult for us to address racism. Third, I will discuss the implications of racism and its history in this country for the preparation and practice of early childhood professionals.


Because of the dependent nature of the child, the parent or caretaker must provide for essential needs. In the process, the relationship needs of child and caretaker are met and lead to an emotional attachment or bond between them. This enables the caretaker to influence the development of the child along multiple growth pathways, five of which are critical to school learning: social-interactive, psycho-emotional, moral, speech-language, and cognitive-intellectual-academic. Interactions between parent and child in almost every setting—from a bedtime story to discussing safety precautions, or a trip to the grocery store—provide the content and context for growth and development.

The child needs the guidance, protection, and approval—and resulting security—the caretaker provides. This need motivates the child to behave more often than not in an adult-satisfying manner. A cycle of generally acceptable performance and approval is set in motion. Approval gives the young child a sense of acceptance and belonging and a related sense of well-being. Disapproval, rejection, and neglect are sources of anxiety.

The parents are the first members of the larger society in the life of the child. They are members of a social network that may or may not be a part of the social mainstream. They bring their particular skills and the social network attitudes, values, and ways to the task of child care and rearing. Because of the extreme dependency of the child and the important role of the caretaker, the attitudes, values, and ways of the caretaker greatly influence those of the young child. This allows the caretaker to mediate the child’s experiences—to give them meaning and to establish their relative importance.

Also, the psychosocial status of the child is derived from that of the parent. The education, economic condition, religion, and belief system of the parents all affect the quality of care the child receives from them. The social status and race of the parent often affect the expectations of the child by parents and others alike. When the child enters a larger network of social contacts, his or her behavior and skills elicit a positive or negative reaction. Frequent success and approval deepens and enlarges a child’s previously gained sense of well-being and confidence. A positive sense of self begins to emerge, but it is highly vulnerable. Adults must be able to protect the young child from experiences that undermine his or her sense of well-being, adequacy, and confidence.

Cognitive development around three years of age permits a child to become aware of racial difference and it is here that he or she can first directly experience the effects of racism. It is here that caretakers should be able to help children feel positive about their own racial group and that of others. Positive feelings about race can enlarge a child’s overall desirable sense of self. Negative feelings about race can plant seeds of self-doubt even among children who are developing well otherwise.2

There is a more subtle and serious problem for many minority children. Race-related social conditions, past and present, have put a disproportionate number of minority parents under stress. Many are not able to provide their children with the kind of developmental experiences that will prepare them for school or elicit positive responses from others. Some are underdeveloped along critical developmental pathways. Some display attitudes, values, and ways that are different from those of the mainstream.3 This was the case for the four-year-old who slapped her doll in the vignette above. Such behaviors are sometimes believed to be due to the race of the child. Even when this is not the case, caretakers—for reasons described below—are often not able to respond appropriately. Negative racial feelings and behaviors are maintained. The child’s behavior reinforces adverse expectations and behaviors of even the most empathetic caretaker. Reactions from guilt through avoidance to pity and permissiveness are as harmful as overt racial antagonism.

Majority children, and more fortunate minority children, interacting with minority children from families under stress often gain racial perceptions that are harmful to themselves and to minorities. For example, two six-year-old first graders—one black, one white, and both from middle-income families—were walking to school. They encountered a group of black children from a housing project who attended the same school. The white child said to her black friend, “Hold my hand, here come the black kids, and they fight.” From her point of view, her black friend was not “black.” Such perceptions are harmful to all involved.

Adequately functioning minority parents usually help their children understand such perceptions, and show them that the problem or shortcoming is with the person who displays misperceptions or outright racial antagonisms, not in themselves. Such parents usually teach their children to manage overt racial antagonisms in ways that minimize the frequency of such attacks, and their psychosocial damage. When minority parents are comfortable with their own racial identity, their children have a good chance of acquiring the same level of comfort. They acquire their racial and ethnic culture from their parents and the experiences they expose them to in a natural and positive way. For many, however, this is not the case. Often, as in the case above, child-care workers are not able to protect children from the negative effects of racism, even when they would like to do so. As in the second case above, the caretakers—teachers and principals—are sometimes the source of the racist attitudes, or make no effort to protect the black child. Again, many black parents are victims of racism to the point that they cannot protect their children from its negative effects.

The effects of racism begin to impact children more directly after eight or nine years of age. Somewhere between eight and twelve children begin to “place” themselves and their families in the social status structure that they have begun to observe. They begin to internalize the attitudes about themselves held by powerful individuals in their environment—parents, teachers, others—and they often act on or react to these expectations in a self-fulfilling manner. School curricula, television programs, people and practices, regularly convey messages about race that can be troublesome to minority children.

Many minority children have no way to understand the inequities in the society as anything but deficits within their own group. This can be troublesome even for black young people who are developing reasonably well overall, creating outright racial identity problems for many during adolescence. Without a mechanism to counter the negative messages about themselves transmitted in the larger society, some associate problem behavior with their minority identity. Among some, school achievement or high-level aspirations become nonminority activities. Some successful minority young people who are uncomfortable with their identity attempt to distance themselves from their group. For example, the first black valedictorian at a suburban high school in Ohio said, “I’m tired of hearing all this stuff about being the first black; I’m an individual and that’s the only thing that counts.” Such attitudes and behaviors among the most able minority students limit the peer support available to undermine the effects of racism in this country, and in turn permit racism to interfere with the development of black children in the next generation.


We have reacted to our historical racial experience in ways that make it extremely difficult to overcome its contemporary adverse effects on child development. Many Americans—black and white—would prefer to end past race-based inequities and injustices and try to create a more just society without fully considering the effects of the past. We are embarrassed, guilty, and ashamed of the treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics in particular. Many see no political, economic, or social benefit for themselves in fully considering the adverse effects of the past on these groups. Because our society has avoided, denied, and rationalized the more difficult and more troublesome outcomes of our historical racial experience on these groups, we have facilitated race-based public policy and practices that victimize these groups even more.

The textbooks and curricula in most schools inadequately address our racial history. Some do not address it at all. Schools of higher education are only slightly better. Even the social and behavioral sciences and social services give inadequate attention to historical public policy and social context issues that focus more on the affected groups and individuals. Most relevant here, many schools of education give little attention to the way in which minority students have been disadvantaged, and what to do about it. As a result, some of the most educated people in America—policymakers and trend setters—do not have the knowledge base necessary to understand and address race-based problems. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear even well-meaning people say, “We [their ethnic group] made it, why can’t the blacks—or browns?”

Without an understanding of the fundamental difference between the European and Asian immigrant experience and that of blacks, we cannot understand and interpret the forces of racism in  was done by disrupting the organizing aspects of the culture of victimized groups.4 This resulted in adverse effects on institutional life, particularly family life, and in turn on child development. I will briefly review the European and Asian experience in this regard, and while the underlying problem is the same for other minority groups, I will confine my discussion in this paper to the experience of blacks.

All immigrant groups experienced hardship, but most also experienced a reasonable degree of continuity. They were able to continue their religion, language, and other aspects of their culture in the new country. Many came in groups, voluntarily, from the old country and settled together in the new country. These circumstances often created a fair degree of cohesion within immigrant groups.5

Most immigrants were able to vote within a short period of time. This facilitated the acquisition of political power in one generation and, in turn, brought economic and social power. Usually a few members of a group either brought or had access to wealth from the old country. Political, economic, and social power within the mainstream of the society created net works of contacts, ties, and information that first served to decrease the antagonism toward their group, and then to pull many other families into networks of mainstream opportunity. These developments made education available and important. As a result, immigrants were able to undergo in three generations development that paralleled economic development in this country. Our most massive immigration occurred before 1915. Before 1900 it was possible to earn a living without an education and to create the level of family stability that would enable children to participate in a job market between 1900 and 1945 that required a moderate level of education and training. Families able to participate in the job market of this period were in the best position to enable their children to acquire the high level of education and skills necessary to participate in the economy between 1945 and 1980, and so on into the postindustrial economy after 1980. While there were psychosocial casualties due to the dislocation and hardships related to immigration, there were fewer among these immigrant groups than among groups that experienced more traumatic social histories.

The black beginnings—as Americans—were marked by cultural discontinuity, rather than continuity. Blacks experienced the loss of their organizing institutions—political, economic, and social. In West Africa, these institutions were providing adaptive attitudes, values, and ways. The culture of slavery that was imposed broke this influence. Slavery was a system of forced dependency and inherent inferiority, without hope of a better future. Slave parents were not preparing their children for a prideful place or greater opportunity in the new culture. These conditions produced severely negative psychosocial consequences for many. Some made adaptive responses that protected them from the most adverse effects of slavery, and some lived under less harsh conditions of slavery. A black church was created out of the aesthetic remnants of African culture and the Protestant religion of slavemasters.6 Some slaves were able to identify with the best aspects of their masters and the new culture. Even these adaptations, however, left the slaves vulnerable to negative identifications as a racial group. In fact, they were not a single and cohesive ethnic group. All of these conditions made cultural cohesion during and after slavery extremely difficult.

After slavery, violence and subterfuge were used to deny most blacks the vote.7 As a result, blacks were closed out of mainstream political, economic, and social power. They had no access to wealth. Without power, the group could not decrease the high level of racism and the denial of opportunity. As a result, in the eight states that had 80 percent of the black population right into the 1930s, educational expenditures for white children were four to eight times those for black children. In some places the disparity was as great as twenty-five times or more.8 The same disparity existed in higher education. As late as the mid-1960s, the combined endowment of two prestigious white women’s colleges was equal to one-half that of a single Ivy League college serving white males; and the one-half endowment of the latter was greater than that of the more than one hundred black colleges put together.9

Even educated black people were closed out of the economic mainstream. In order to facilitate segregation, a black leadership group, serving blacks, was allowed to emerge in religion and the professional areas only. These conditions denied blacks the contacts, knowledge, and experiences of mainstream political, economic, and social institutions, and the ability to pull families into them, or to make education possible and meaningful to the widest number of people. Despite this, the supportive and adaptive nature of rural culture and the black church enabled many families to do reasonably well until the 1950s. As late as the 1940s, only slightly over 20 percent of all black families were single-parent families; now the statistic is around 50 percent. Most black communities were reasonably safe through the 1950s.10 Around 1945, however, education became the ticket for admission to living-wage jobs. Blacks, closed out of the educational mainstream during the period when most Americans were gaining the education needed to participate in the last stage of the industrial era and beyond, were most hurt.

Exclusion from the primary job market, combined with urbanization and the significant decline of black church influence, put a large number of families under great stress. Many families that once functioned well began to function less well in urban areas north and south. After 1945, well-functioning families from all groups began to have fewer children, except where there were religious reasons. This was not the case for poorly functioning families, of whom, for historic reasons, a disproportionate number were black.

Because of racist policies, practices, and structural changes, blacks were not able to undergo the same degree of the three-generational movement as other groups. Nonetheless, there were three generations of development among many black families. It is this group that has been able to take advantage of opportunities created by the elimination of the legal structures supporting racism. Those families most victimized by past conditions of racism and structural changes are least able to take advantage of new opportunities. These constitute the group that American institutions have not brought into the mainstream of society.

American institutions made an inadequate adjustment to structural changes after World War II. We did not develop the kinds of housing, health, and educational policies that could have interrupted the residual effects of racism and related poverty, that could have reduced the stress on black families. Today, many families under stress are unable to give their children the kinds of experiences that can prepare them to succeed in school and in life. Even many functioning reasonably well are excluded from the mainstream of the society to the point that they often do not know how to provide their children with experiences that can enable them to succeed.

The black community has been preoccupied with trying to reduce racism without having access to the traditional mainstream power base. It has not had the cohesion and power needed to positively affect the lives of its most victimized families. As a result, too many underachieve, and behave in troublesome ways. Racism allowed many to accept the academic underachievement and troublesome behavior of many children from the most victimized black families as evidence of their lack of ability and undesirability, rather than as consequences of exclusion from the societal mainstream. This has resulted in school failure and other social problems rather than the social mainstream success that was, and is, possible for most Americans.

The black experience described above permits a black child to slap her doll and say, “Shut up you black bitch”; permits some white school personnel to ignore racist intimidation of black children, or to participate in it; permits black children to experience conditions and pick up information that contributes to negative racial identities; permits white children to make inaccurate assumptions about blacks, and their own racial group; and, finally, permits our institutions, even those preparing teachers to help children grow and learn, to ignore the past effects of racism to the point that they cannot help children avoid the adverse consequences of it.


In 1968 our Yale Child Study Center team—a psychiatrist, a social worker, a special education teacher, and a psychologist—went into two inner-city schools that were troublesome expressions of our nation’s racial policy. The students were 99 percent black, and almost all were poor. In 1969, the achievement level of the fourth graders in these schools was thirty-second and thirty-third out of thirty-three schools. These students were nineteen and eighteen months behind in language arts and mathematics. We terminated the program in one school after five years because both staff and parents there were comfortable with the changes that had been made and were unwilling to proceed further. We entered a second school with a similar profile to that of the school we had been serving. The majority of students in the new school were also drawn from a housing project. By 1984, the two schools, without any changes in socioeconomic makeup, were tied for the third and fourth highest level achievement on the IOWA Test of Basic Skills. One school was a year above, and the second was seven months above grade level. Attendance and behavior in these schools were among the best in the city. These outcomes were achieved by using our knowledge of history, child development, and human-system interactions to understand the behavior of parents, staff, and students in school. With this understanding, we were able to create mechanisms, programs, and practices in the school that overcame those effects of racism and poverty that limited the school performance of staff and students, and school support among parents.

A major task was to overcome partially race-based assumptions among staff and parents about the ability and troublesome behavior of the students. Through an understanding of the historical experience of blacks, the staff came to appreciate how many of the students were prepared for life in the nonmainstream social network of their families, but were not prepared for the mainstream experience and expectations of the school. This led to a project entitled “The Social Skills Curriculum for Inner City Children.” This curriculum involved parents and integrated the teaching of basic skills, social skills, and appreciation of the arts. It included an appreciation of black culture. This program facilitated positive home-school relationships, greater student growth and development, and a positive racial identity among the students. It also resulted in significantly improved achievement and social behavior.

None of the teachers had had the kind of preservice training that would have enabled them to work in the ways needed with the children, parents, and each other. In-service activities had to be provided. This should not have been necessary in a multicultural society committed to providing children from all socioeconomic backgrounds with the kind of education that allows them to achieve at the level of their ability. Preservice programs—in and outside the discipline of education—should provide all students with an understanding of how structural forces, policies, and practices impact communities, groups and families, and child development.

Race has been a central issue in American life. The ways in which it has affected child development must be considered in preservice programs. Teachers should have an opportunity—both in pre- and in-service training—to learn the ways in which their behavior can either facilitate or interfere with the development of children. They should be prepared to address the race-related needs of minority children. Because of the power of early childhood educators to influence child development, it is critically important that their educational training provide them with the knowledge, skills, and sensitivity to protect children from racial attitudes and conditions that interfere with development. Early childhood educators must be prepared to promote the development and learning of children who are attempting to grow and learn in spite of race-based obstacles to their success.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 3, 1989, p. 352-361
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 478, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:56:46 PM

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