The Public Humanist

We Need More Diverse Books Because Black Lives Matter

The WeNeedDiverseBooks and BlackLivesMatter movements are the same. One campaign deals with the movement’s beginning. The other campaign deals with the movement’s ending – if things are not changed in the beginning. That ending is the spate of police killings of unarmed Black men by White police officers.

How are they connected? The African-American Literature and Book Club’s (AALBC) Discussion Forum from Dec. 9, 2014 noted “Across America, non-White children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them.” In those same classrooms across America, White children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which they [Whites] are the only or main characters.

This omission can be seen in textbooks as well as in children’s literature. In one Georgia county, the district’s new history book features just a one-page entry on US African-American enslavement, written by a White woman, who wrote that many Blacks supported the Southern Confederacy. One Black parent objected to that version of history, taking the matter to the local school board. However,the local school board did not remove the textbook from the syllabus, leaving this version in classrooms throughout the county.

In her article “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” which appeared in The Saturday Review on September 11, 1965 (pp. 63-65), Nancy Larrick reported, “Of the 5,206 children’s trade books launched by the sixty-three publishers in the three-year period [1962, 1963, 1964], only 349 include one or more Negroes–an average of 6.7 percent.” Pay attention to the fact the books included Negroes–there is no mention of the books having Negroes as main characters.

Almost 50 years later, in 2013, a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin looked at 3,200 children’s books published in 2013. Just 93 were about Black people (less than 3%), and of that total, only 68 were written by Black writers–2%! Two New York Times editorials in 2014 by preeminent Black book creators, the late Walter Dean Myers, (“Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books”) and his son Christopher Myers, (“The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”) speak to this problem. If children’s books don’t reflect the world as it is, how can we expect children to develop the kind of empathy needed to make progress in combating racism? Racism continues to exist in American society because we teach racism to each generation of American children through our children’s books, US school history textbooks, and other media.

As Walter Dean Myers writes in his piece, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future White personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future White loan officers and future White politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are Black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”

This reality was brought home to me when speaking before a group of students a few years ago; a young Black boy in kindergarten asked me, “Why did White people do everything?” I answered,“White people did not do everything. Whites write most of and control the books. They largely put only themselves (Whites), their views of the world, and their stories in those books.”

The police shootings of unarmed Black men is the logical ending to an American education that excludes the contributions of people of color. US history books in our schools and US children’s books largely teach “Black lives do not matter,” and as a result, children grow into adults who may not have the skills or background need to help bridge differences in their communities.

The impact of this gap can be seen in an article featured in Police Chief Magazine, where researchers contend there are implicit biases possibly affecting police actions. According to UCLA Professor Jerry Kang, “Implicit biases are predilections operating largely outside of one’s awareness. Although hidden, these biases are both pervasive and powerful.” He goes on to explain that these predilections are called stereotypes. “Implicit bias is shaped by both history and cultural influences (for example, upbringing; life experiences; relationships; and all manner of media—books, movies, television, newspapers, [education] and so on). Implicit bias can be completely contradictory to an individual’s stated beliefs.”

Professor Kang’s research also showed 75 percent to 80 percent of self-identified Whites and Asians show an implicit preference for Whites relative to Blacks. Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji put it this way: “In America, we are surrounded by cultural messages linking White with good. You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group, you are required to.” In 2005, researchers E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche showed how these biases connected to the problem of police brutality when they conducted a study of 50 certified police patrol officers who participated in computer-simulated “shoot—don’t shoot” scenarios. The results of the study showed some “officers were initially more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White
suspects.”

To change our endings, we must change our beginnings. We need more diverse books in the beginning of children’s lives. We need more diverse books teaching children that Black lives, Latino lives, Asian lives, Native American lives – and the lives of all people – matter. This is one way we can address the deep roots of the shooting of unarmed Black men by White police officers. This is the one way we can more productively shape the perspectives of White children and stop the killing of the self images of children of color. This is one way we can make sure Black lives and the lives of other diverse people do matter, starting in kindergarten.

References
Gove, Tracey. “Implicit Bias and Law Enforcement.” The Police Chief. Edition 78. October 2011. Retrieved: http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?
fuseaction=display&article_id=2499&issue_id=102011!

Larrick, Nancy. “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” The Saturday Review. September 11, 1965. (pp. 63-65). Retrieved: http://www.longwood.edu/staff/miskecjm/384larrick.pdf

Myers, Christopher. “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” The New York Times. March 15, 2014. Retrieved: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/the-apartheid-of-childrens-literature.html

Myers, Walter Dean. “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The New York Times. March 15, 2014. Retrieved: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/where-are-the-people-of-color-in-childrens-books.html

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