To understand the issue more deeply, we examined surveys of more than 2,000 adults ages 18 and older, collected from May 21 to June 14, 2020, in four major U.S. cities — Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York. We were seeking to understand how people’s views on race were influenced by their parents. It was part of an ongoing study looking at how people’s experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic have been shaped by their race.
Our initial findings indicate that among white respondents, 65% said their parents had “never” or “rarely” had conversations with them about racism when they were children.
In general, we found that younger white people were more likely to have parents who talked with them about about racism compared to those in older generations. Surprisingly, however, those in the youngest age group — 18- to 25-year-olds — were less likely to have parents who talked with them about racism “very often” (only 7%), compared to 26- to 40-year-olds (16%) and to those 41 to 55 years old (12%).
We found that those whose parents talked with them about racism were themselves more likely to talk with their own children about it. However, even during this period of unrest, 27% of white parents of children between 6 and 11 years old told us they “never” talked with their kids about the need for racial equality.
Another 15% said these conversations were “rare,” and 34% said they happened “on occasion.”
Missing the point
Sometimes conversations can also be explicitly or implicitly racist, relying on racial stereotypes premised on the idea of inherent differences between race groups.
Seldom are conversations anti-racist. An anti-racism dialog with children involves acknowledging racial inequalities and the historical and current reasons why they exist. They also include talking about ways a child could help actively undo racism and how not to be a bystander when they see racism being perpetrated.
Our data showed that white people who were taught by their parents about opposing racism and what our survey called the “importance of fighting for racial equality” were supportive of doing more to help racial minority groups hit harder by Covid-19.
We also found that parents’ discussions with their kids helped them grow up to have more nuanced views on other aspects of racism in the US.
Three-quarters of adults who had, as children, talked with their parents “very often” about racism said that racial minorities do not have the same opportunities as whites. A similar share, 69%, of them said race plays a major role in the types of social services that people receive, such as health care or day care. And 69% also agreed that race plays an important role in who gets sent to prison.
But of the adults whose parents “never” or “rarely” talked with them about racism, fewer than half — 47% — said racial minorities have different opportunities than whites. Similarly, fewer than half of these people felt that race plays a role in the types of social services people receive or in incarceration — 49% and 48%, respectively.
David Chae is a human sciences associate professor and director, Society, Health and Racial Equity Lab, at Auburn University. Leoandra Onnie Rogers is an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Tiffany Yip is a professor of psychology at Fordham University. Disclosure: Chae receives funding from the National Institutes of Health. Rogers receives funding from the Spencer Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. Yip has received funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.