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The critical role white parents play in shaping racism — and eradicating it

Clarification: This report stated that the majority of Americans who have died of COVID-19 have been identified as African American. The CDC reports that more white Americans have died of coronavirus, but race/ethnicity was available for only 42.3 percent of those tracked. A recent study by the nonpartisan APM Research Lab shows that the latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for whites and 2.2 times as high as the rate for Asians and Latinos. A second national study by the AIDS research group amfAR found that half of all COVID-19 cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths due to the disease were in counties that are disproportionately black.

Structural racism is now sharing the American cultural spotlight with COVID-19. While solutions to racial disparities in police treatment, health care and education will likely require policy changes, some experts say decisions at the family and individual levels matter just as much. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to Margaret Hagerman of Mississippi State University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, what some are calling a different virus, structural racism, is now front and center.

    We turn to special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault for the latest in our Race Matters series, looking at solutions to racism.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    More than 100,000 Americans have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of them African-Americans.

    But studies also show that this group, especially black men and boys, face the highest risk of being killed by police, three times higher than whites. As cities nationwide boil over in protest over these twin epidemics, one expert says solutions lie not only with systemic reform, but with individual families.

    She is Margaret Hagerman, assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University, and the author of "White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America."

    She spent two years embedded with white families in a Midwestern town, looking into the relationship between white privilege and racism, even in families that view themselves as progressive.

    Maggie Hagerman, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    It was after grad school that you embedded yourself in an all-white community somewhere in the Midwest that remains anonymous, understandably.

    How did you present yourself? I mean, did you say, I'm here to study why you're a racist?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    No, I did not approach participants with that.

    When I would approach families, I would present this project as one that is exploring how parents prepare their children to participate in a diverse democracy. That was the language that I used.

    It was interesting, because many of the white families that I invited to participate would often refer me to their friends of color, so, like, their black friend, their black neighbor, you know, their Latino co-worker. And I thought that was interesting, that they believed, even before I started collecting data, that their children would not have anything to say about race, but that the black and brown children in their community would.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    But what were some of the most surprising things and maybe some of the most important things that you learned during this three years, right?

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    So, one of the great things about being an ethnographer and embedding myself in this community is that I was able to really document all of the different ways that children, in my research, learned about race.

    And so that included things their parents said. But what I found even more important was what their parents did. So, the choices that their parents made about where to live or what school to send their children to or which extracurricular activities to enroll their kids in, where to travel, what kinds of, you know, media they consumed, all of these choices have really significant impacts on how children were interpreting their social environment.

    And so, certainly for the kids that were living in that suburban community, they — I mean, they never came into contact with a person of color, ever. Even their knowledge about racial difference or about race in America came from things like TV shows and movies, which was interesting.

    And so I absolutely think that parents are shaping this process.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Now, you spoke about some of the more integrated communities, but, in those predominantly white communities in the schools, were they teaching African-American history?

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    They were not receiving as critical of an education on the history of racism in America, or African-American history, certainly.

    And this was apparent, based on the things that they said. One of the quotes in the very beginning of the book is from a child who tells me that: "Since Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt, and how she went on the bus, and she was African-American and sat on the white part, after the 1920s and all that, things changed."

    And so I thought that was a really compelling quote, because it demonstrates, you know, just her lack of knowledge. And then her mother was sitting there when she said it. And she was like, yes, tell her. You know, tell her what you know.

    So, I thought that was interesting also.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    You know, this COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a lot of information that people may not have been aware of. And that is that, at the moment, the majority of people who are getting infected by the virus and who are dying are people of color, primarily black people.

    Do you think that the attention that's been paid to that is going to make people look at African-Americans and people of color differently?

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    You know, on the one hand, perhaps yes. Perhaps people will see that these — these numbers, and just the tremendous trauma that the black community in particular is facing in this moment, and perhaps that will make them take racial health disparities more seriously.

    On the other hand, I think that there's evidence that, you know, people have known about racial health disparities for a very long time.

    Linda Villarosa had an article in "The New York Times Magazine," and in that, she reminds us that W.E.B. Du Bois talked about, you know, the social conditions that lead to racial health inequality in 1899. And so this isn't something new.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So, based on your research, though, and your interaction with people who obviously became very comfortable with you, in your presence, do you have any solutions that you can offer for people to deal with racism in a more positive way?

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    Well, I think that one of the patterns that I see is, a lot of white parents believe that simply talking to their kids about racism will somehow ensure that their child will not reproduce racial inequality in their own life.

    And I always see these articles that come out. I have seen a lot recently that have come out, in light of George Floyd, for example, where, you know, parents are being called to talk to their kids.

    And what my research shows is that talk is only part of the answer. And, in fact, I think that parents, especially those like the ones in my studies, who are white and affluent and have a number of different kinds of privileges, when those parents use those privileges to give their own child advantages, that ultimately reproduces forms of inequality that are, you know, part of the problem, too.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    But how do you change that? Because you can't tell people, stop making money or stop being, you know, well-off.

    So, how do you do that?

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    Every parent that I have spoken to has told me that they want their kid to be happy.

    And I think that trying to get your child an upper hand and an advantage at every turn and using the symbolic capital of whiteness, as well as your economic privilege to do that, is ultimately not going to lead to the kind of future that is good for all children or all people that live in this society.

    And I think that the most important thing that white parents can do is embrace the idea that all children are worthy of their consideration and that we should care about our community. We should think about the collective good. We should focus on how we can help everyone, rather than just focusing on our own child.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And, finally, let me ask you this. How important is it for people who are in leadership positions to say the right things about race? And does that really matter?

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    Yes, I absolutely think it — think that it matters.

    It's important that people who are in leadership positions and in positions of authority take the realities of racism, the legacy of racism, the data and the facts that we have about racism seriously, and include those in not only what they say, but also what they do, in terms of their policies and how they move forward as a leader.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Maggie Hagerman, thank you so much for joining us. I know that this is going to be very instructive to a lot of people.

  • Margaret Hagerman:

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And please join us Friday night for "Race Matters: America in Crisis," a "PBS NewsHour" prime-time special.

    That will be at the end of this difficult week. We will explore this critical moment and how we move ahead.

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