Education Professor Contributes to “Anderson Cooper 360°” Report on Race

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Dell'Angelo

This week (May 17–21), CNN will air a series of reports examining children’s attitudes toward race. Tabitha Dell’Angelo, an assistant professor of early childhood and elementary education at TCNJ, served as a consultant on the project.

The Anderson Cooper 360° investigative series, “Black and White: Kids on Race,” will revisit the 1947 “Doll Test” in which African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark revealed the psychological effects of segregation on children. In their experiment, the Clarks asked children to associate certain attributes (for example, good, bad, smart, and dumb) with either a Black or White doll. The majority of the children associated positive attributes with the White dolls, and negative attributes with the Black dolls.

The Clarks’ research offered proof that “segregation was causing psychological harm to all children, because by segregating schools and segregating [other institutions], children [were learning] that brown is bad and white is good,” explained Dell’Angelo. Their findings were eventually included in the arguments for the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

When Cooper decided to explore how children’s attitudes toward race might have changed in the last 60 years, producers for his show recruited a team of child psychologists to replicate, design, and analyze the Clarks’ experiment. Margaret Beale Spencer, a Marshall Field IV professor of urban education at the University of Chicago, coordinated the CNN study. Beale Spencer asked Dell’Angelo to assist because the two had work together on a similar study while at the University of Pennsylvania. Dena Phillips Swanson, a professor from Rochester University’s Warner School of Education, also assisted with the CNN project.

In March, Dell’Angelo, Philips Swanson, and CNN camera crews traveled to selected grade schools in the Northeast and Southeast to conduct their study. The TCNJ professor explained that one of the critiques of the Clarks’ original study was that the children were given a “forced choice”—that is, they had to choose either a Black or White doll when answering. For the CNN study, Dell’Angelo and her colleagues allowed the respondents to choose from five illustrations of a baby, all of which were identical except for variations in the color shade (or skin tone).

“What we found is there is still a preference for light, even in kids with dark skin,” said Dell’Angelo. “The preference wasn’t to the same extent [as in the Clarks’ test], but it’s still there.”

Still, Dell’Angelo said that one thing that doesn’t show up in the final data she and her colleagues supplied to CNN were the number of children who wouldn’t answer the researchers’ questions, seemingly unwilling to make assumptions about others based solely on appearance.

“There were a decent number of kids who… would say, ‘How do I know who the smart kid is? I would have to know them,’” Dell’Angelo said. “Or in response to a question about which children they’d like to play with at home, some kids would say, ‘I would have to know them first.’”

Dell’Angelo didn’t know which of the children’s responses would be shown when the AC 360° series airs in June, but she did caution that if any of the children’s remarks seem insensitive or inflammatory, it’s important to keep in mind where they are developmentally.

“These kids aren’t who they are going to be,” Dell’Angelo said. “They’re 5 and 9 years old. If they say something that seems provocative…we [shouldn’t] put a label on these kids that follows them for all perpetuity in ‘video land.’”

For more information on the report, visit http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2010/kids.on.race/

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