When does racial bias begin? In the early years of life. Where does it lead? To a knee pressed on the neck of an unarmed black man as he gasps for breath. And how can we build a world in which black lives matter in the hearts of all? These questions are on everyone’s mind as the country erupts in protests over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. Recent events would have grieved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a great proponent of peaceful protest. The violence that racial bias breeds is a source of deep concern for all us here at the Council for Professional Recognition. We’re committed to ensuring that early childhood teachers have the right stance on tolerance and hold themselves to a high standard of inclusion.
The Council knows that racial awareness takes root early in development. Babies recognize differences, and by age two, they become attuned to the biases shown by family members. The officers who condemned Floyd to death may have learned prejudice at their parents’ knees. But more prejudice is caught than taught because young children don’t naturally see race from a negative perspective. What I have observed in classrooms as a teacher is that children may feel a sense of befuddlement when they encounter differences, but they can navigate through it to make close bonds. And teachers shepherd that process by helping young children build belief systems that accept those who are different.
As our educators work with children during their most formative years, they need to know the difference between equity and equality, according to Linda Hassan Anderson, the Council’s chairman of the board. Equality means treating everyone the same. On the other hand, “equity,” as she points out, “means providing each person with the resources they need to reach their potential.” Giving all young children access to quality early education is a good start, but it’s not enough. Different children need different types of support.
As educators, we must be sensitive to the social context that can inspire challenging behaviors. Research shows that children of color are punished more often than their white peers and that black preschoolers account for 47 percent of preschool suspensions though they make up only 19 percent of preschool enrollment. Children who feel like a failure in the first few years often fail as adults, leading to a poverty cycle that can infect generations.
The impact of racial violence also spreads between people, like the pandemic that’s now taking its greatest toll among people of color. Educators don’t have the expertise to help find a vaccine for the virus, but we can inoculate children’s minds against prejudice and the social pathologies it spawns. Our remedy for racial bias is to spread empathy, tolerance and understanding in the early childhood setting.
As we strive to promote justice, we have much to learn from the past. Yet, we don’t reflect enough on the legacy of nonviolent change left by Dr. King, Fred Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders of the sixties. As a black man who grew up in Alabama, I’m a benefactor of the changes they produced through peaceful protest. Now I just want to do my part to fight for the rights of others and help them overcome injustices they may encounter. At the same time, I feel that the most important thing that people of color can do is to vote. I firmly support peaceful demonstration, but we need to use the ballot box to make systematic change.
In the meantime, the early childhood field can make a difference. As our educators reach out to children, they should let the children talk about what they’re feeling, provide them with rich literature and tell personal tales of triumph that help them cope with confusion. It’s especially crucial during a crisis like this, but our efforts shouldn’t end during calmer times. I worry about children living in a world that’s generally filled with violence and misunderstanding. So, I urge our educators to work all year long to stem the plague of prejudice—and promote healing instead of hatred. Together, we must spread the message that black lives matter every day.