White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege In A Racially Divided America By Margaret Hagerman

The young people from Parkland who led the gun violence protests are shocking. Instead of piling up teddy bears and flowers and disappearing back into anonymity, they insist that something be done and if politicians can’t figure that out, they need to be replaced. Even more astonishingly, they reached out to other young people whose voices are just as powerful, but are not heard. For example, Emma Gonzalez came to Chicago to meet with Black and Brown kids who live under the misery of gun violence every day (the South Side for short).

The Parkland kids are from relatively affluent families. The teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School support their aspirations and hone their skills so that they are articulate and prepared to act. It is sickening that the kids from the South Side are unheard despite their own powerful voices and their best efforts. The Parkland kids recognize that disparity. How did it happen that the Parkland kids were both prepared and aware? Why are they heard when others aren’t?

Affluent white kids live in a different world from that of the poorer members of their age cohorts. They travel more, their houses are different, they have more and better things, their daily lives are different, and the expectations of their parents are different. One more thing: the kids they see every day are mostly white, and most of the parents of those kids are also affluent and white. This is the world that Margaret Hagerman studied for White Kids.

She starts by stating the obvious: our society is racialized. All social issues seem to be tied up with race, now more than ever as the right wing descends into Trumpian white nationalism expressed not only in our national politics but in our foreign policy. It has always been racialized. Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi is an excellent history of race in the US; I highly recommend it.

Hagerman identified three separate white and upper middle class neighborhoods in a Midwestern city which she calls Petersfield. She interviewed a number of families, ten closely, talking to the kids and their parents and siblings, sometimes separately and sometimes together. The kids in this ethnographic study are in middle school, mostly 10 to 13 years old. Their parents are professionals and middle to upper middle management level business people.

One community is largely conservative, one is left/liberal, and one center blue. All of the parents want to raise decent caring children, and importantly for this study, they absolutely don’t want their kids to be racists. They all want their kids to succeed academically and as adults to have the same kind of life they do; and they give the kids everything they think the kids need to achieve those goals. All of them appear to be good parents, involved in the daily lives of their children and on good terms with them.

She identifies three strategies the parents have adopted in socializing their kids, and gives us a picture of their thinking on race. The parents of the conservative community adopt a strategy of raising their kids to be color-blind, that is, they themselves believe, and want their kids to think, that racism is a thing of the past. They don’t discuss race, and when they do it’s in the context of equal opportunity. In the liberal community, the parents try to instill anti-racism in the kids, as well as awareness of their good fortune in having access to a life of privilege, and talk with their kids about what can be done. In the more centrist community, the parents talk about race and social status, and try to show their kids that race is a problem and that the kids have advantages over other children but there is more emphasis on the need to succeed academically and less on responsibility to in confront the problem.

Hagerman gives a detailed picture of those strategies in action. She reports on how the kids view race and their own privilege. The kids are bright and articulate, and forthright in explaining their views. The parents are equally forthcoming.

Several things seem especially relevant.

1. Hagerman makes it clear that the US race problem are institutional, and will not be solved by individuals. This raises questions about how change could come about which are beyond the scope of this book.

2. The color-blind strategy doesn’t work. If you teach kids that race isn’t an issue, that everyone is equal and has equal opportunities, you leave your kids poorly prepared to face the real world where there are utterly unfair racial differences. Hagerman sees a tendency among kids raised color-blind to attribute those differences to personal failings of the kids or their parents. That is certain to perpetuate the racialized structures of the US.

3. Hagerman emphasizes the agency of the kids. Their attitudes about race are informed by parents and teachers, their peer groups and siblings, and their own interactions with not-white kids. They work out solutions to the questions they have with each other, and privately. The agency of the kids is salient with some of the parents, not so much with others.

Hagerman generally approves of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, but places more importance on the agency of the kids than he does. The parents and teachers worked to instill a habitus in the kids, but there are many other people and events involved in the formation of that habitus. The Parkland kids and most of the kids in Hagerman’s study were taught from an early age to examine those lessons and encouraged to think about them for themselves. They aren’t blank slates. They are active participants in shaping their lives, even in middle school.

Hagerman says that the attitudes toward race present in middle school persist and strengthen as the kids get to high school, which seems to support Bourdieu’s assertion that habitus is learned at an early age.

If you substitute gun violence for race, you can see this in action after the Parkland murders. It seems to me, although of course I don’t know, that the Parkland kids thought that they had a responsibility to do something about gun violence. This was shocking to the right-wing pundits and their disciples. partly because they didn’t play their part in the repulsive NRA charade of grief but mostly because white kids aren’t supposed to be uppity. They are supposed to enjoy their privilege without regard to anyone else.

4. Bourdieu devoted his life to studying how the dominant class reproduces its dominance across generations so that everybody accepts it as natural and unthreatening. The Parkland kids and the kids in this study are likely to join the dominant class and are being socialized to do so. We don’t talk about domination in the US. But it seemed natural to most of us that the Parkland kids spoke out and were heard. It’s going to take so much more for the kids on the South Side to enter the dominant class, and on the whole, people seem comfortable ignoring them. The different treatment of these voices arises in large part from the structure of our racialized society.

This is an academic study, but every parent will benefit from thinking about the three strategies and the impact they have on children.

8 replies
  1. Eric S says:

    Interesting, clear, and I think accurate.

    Brooks this week wrote an opinion (July 26/NYT/Where American Renewal Begins) in which he describes a volunteer program called Thread, situated in a poor section of Baltimore. Underachieving black kids are swooped up by a strongly concerted network of educated and privileged adults who work within a highly ethical, intelligent, and responsible framework to help them, not only through school, but into early adulthood.  Lots of genuine success.

    Presumably, the commenters on a NYT opinion piece, like the groups compiled by Hagerman, think of themselves as having socially positive and responsible positions about race. They broke down very much like they do in this article.

    Everyone recognized that the program was exceptional.

    About a third liked the program but asked, in a way that seemed to me unkindly, why the parents of the children weren’t taking care of their own kids. They were ticked off that children exist, whose parents aren’t taking enough care, for them to succeed in school.  Some even seemed to feel okay about looking away, because it wasn’t their problem.

    A bulky third unquestioningly thought the program was amazing and said it gave them hope, the stars in their eyes crowd, glad that someone out there was helping, and seemingly, that’s the end of it.

    The final third liked the program too, but imagined that the parents of the poor children might have liked to have been able to have the leisure time, dollars, jobs, and power, to take care of their own children, instead of having them swooped up, by compassionate people with more luck in the entitlement game. This group also questioned some of the assumptions in the article, which had said, for example, that Thread essentially dissolved distinctions between the “haves and the have nots,” as being untrue.

    The person with real power and influence, Mr. Brooks, thought that by announcing a program which helps a handful of kids in one city, he’d made a significant contribution, because private sector charity contains the only philosophy by which we can save our society.  That this was the solution.

    Within the writing, he did not use the following words: race; racism; black; African American; white; privilege; wealth; rich; money; or connections.

    No big point here, I just thought it was congruent.

  2. Pete says:

    Outstanding Ed!  I live within 2 miles of MSD where the murders happened in the adjacent city of Coral Springs. My three kids are a generation older than those affected at MSD.  Through a family business I have had many interactions with Parkland parents and didn’t have a clue.

    I now think the “skills” developed by these young adult students supported by their parents and teachers have always  been there, but hidden from obvious view only brought to the forefront by the MSD tragedy.

    There is reason to be hopeful, but so many more are needed – like them and those that raised and support them.


    • bmaz says:

      It is not fair that every child doesn’t have the same facilities, teachers and opportunities as the MSD kids. But, darn, what they are, and long have been doing at that school is pretty impressive. How should things be done? That is how.

  3. Watson says:

    In poor neighborhoods the kids commit the crimes; in rich neighborhoods, it’s the parents. /s

    • Trip says:

      You forgot about affluenza. Rich kids commit crimes, but their richness is a mitigating factor in crimes, because it’s so hard being rich. While being poor, apparently, is a lucky cakewalk and choice.

  4. Tracy says:

    Thank you for reporting on this important issue!

    A related issue, in my mind, is segregation of schools and communities. I have always found it (anecdotally) interesting that some of the most liberal places are also segregated: NYC, San Francisco, for instance. The people are often pro-equal-opportunity, yet also (in general), I see them not doing much to integrate and interact with minorities and minority communities themselves. I also (in general) have not see them particularly open to de-segregating their schools when it comes to their own kids, nor keen to integrate their own communities. The phenomena of “white flight” and gentrification are well documented.

    For ex, I’ve heard one woman say that she supports school desegregation, but when asked if she’d send her grandkids to the local African-American school, she’s like: no way. People have to be willing to do this – to walk their talk. I don’t have kids so I know it’s easy for me to say, but I have heard of parents who make this difficult choice, and do so b/c it’s the only way to change things. Nikole Hannah-Jones is really good on this topic, for instance.

    This goes back to what you’ve reported about having agency. Research shows that mere exposure is not enough for different groups to accept one another – there have to be interactions that allow people to see that out-group members have the same wants/ hopes/ fears/ dreams as they do – the minority groups need to be humanized through interaction. Social psychology studies show, for instance, that when groups who hated each other are forced to work together to solve a puzzle/ issue, then they cooperate and integrate (ex from my memory: Robbers Cave experiment, conducted with summer camp kids).

    A study I read about earlier in the year (conducted by Ryan Enos, Harvard political scientist and author of “The Space Between Us”) showed that mere exposure can be deleterious. Spanish-speaking confederates were planted at train stations in wealthy, majority-white suburbs outside Boston, MA for a few weeks. Versus the control, the exposure group later expressed more negative views about immigration; this showed how even a very tiny “demographic change” (of two people) can negatively impact attitudes. This study shows the steep challenges that we face to finally desegregate our society:


    Thanks for drawing attention to these issues, I appreciate your reporting! :-)

    • Ed Walker says:

      Hagerman’s groups seem to confirm this view. Some of the parents tried to send their kids to neighborhood schools with large numbers of non-affluent kids, largely kids of color, and most decided that the atmosphere  and the level of services for bright kids would not help the kids reach the level of learning the parents wanted.

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