There is no age of innocence when it comes to race. American researchers have been showing since the late 1930s that, from the age of three, children demonstrate not only that they are conscious of different skin colour but that they are aware of the hierarchies of race, where white is powerful, beautiful and desirable. Young black, Asian and mixed-race children asked to identify someone like themselves in pictures will choose a white person. They've already absorbed the pervasive message that despite the people they love most in the world being black, Asian or mixed-race, being white is better.
American academics Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin are the latest to explore the world of the under-fives and race. The First R revisits territory last documented by Vivian Gussin Paley in White Teacher; both books are in-depth observations of the interactions of a multicultural group of pre-schoolers. But while Paley's work is suffused with humanity, The First R is a detached, no-holds-barred series of scenarios showing, again and again, that: "Black children are stereotyped or hated by many white Americans - a depreciation routinely revealed to every black childI in a society that continues to deny the power of systemic racism."
This is a scrupulously researched book, but it offers no revelations, no new interpretations, no constructive insights into how to reverse the prejudices that these children utter with such shockng abandon and regularity. In fact, it's the very repetition of pre-schoolers' inhumanity to pre-schoolers that may be the book's undoing. The reader is inundated with scenes like Renee scowling at Lingmai: "No, you can't pull this wagon, only white Americans can pull this wagon"; or Brittany insisting that Mike can't really have a white rabbit at home because he's black; and three-year-old Carla insisting "I can't sleep next to a nigger".
Out of the mouths of babes we hear a reflection of the messages, overt and otherwise, they imbibe from a national culture that prides itself on equality and from parents who insist they themselves aren't racist.
Reading the book as a semi-detached American, I found it a cogent reminder of how the US, perhaps more than any other Western nation, is a country of diverse tribes, each one mistrusting the other, segregated from each other socially, in housing, and in the professions they go into.
The number of schools in which the different races come together is dwindling, particularly since the rescinding of desegregation legislation in many states. But when they are together, as in the pre-school Van Ausdale observed, the macrocosm of divided America is played out on the slides and the swings and in the playhouse.
All very interesting to the newcomer to race in education, and all very familiar to everyone else. The trouble is, where do we go from here? Let's hope we're on the cusp of a new era in which observation of children's prejudice gives way to serious thinking on what to do about it.