Educating children to make the invisible, visible

Sabrina Williams from the She Will Rise campaign to put a black woman on the Supreme Court speaks to the crowd at the No Confirmation Until Inauguration Rally

Just days after Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announced that he would retire from the Supreme Court, President Joe Biden said that his nominee for the position would be a Black woman.

Biden’s remarks drew immediate backlash. Explicitly identifying race and gender as important factors in critical decisions—the argument went—adds bias to what otherwise should be an unbiased neutral decision process. Decades of social science research, however, document the many ways in which race and gender do matter—from biased hiring decisions, to wealth inequality, and even our most intimate romantic relationships—whether we pay attention to their impact or not.

Bias is learned. And bias manifests itself in the assumptions we make about how the social world functions. Even as children, we begin to develop representations that center white people as who we see as “default” when we think of men, boys, and girls—that is, who automatically and naturally comes to mind when we think of a category or group. These defaults set the foundation for systematic inequality in all sectors of society. For example, in many leadership positions, we tend to think of white men as the normative choice, reflecting assumptions of white people and men as cultural defaults. In fact, even as the United States has become more diverse, over 80 percent of positions of power are held by white people.

Educating children to think about what the structural causes of inequality are can help prompt them to recognize the unfairness being perpetuated.

The Supreme Court is no exception. In the history of the Supreme Court, 95 percent of justices have been white men. Racial minorities and women have been excluded from consideration for this highest court in America for centuries, with the first Black justice (Thurgood Marshall) being appointed only as recently as 1967 and the first female justice (Sandra Day O’Connor) being appointed even more recently in 1981. Thus, gender and race have always mattered in selection of justices, but not explicitly named until now.

Of course, bringing light to the invisibility of these dynamics often leads to ostensible concerns about “quality.” That is, there is an assumption that a concerted focus on race and gender means sacrificing the quality of the candidate. Not only is such a refrain wrong, it fails to account for the fact that the credentialing that often goes into considerations of “quality” are themselves biased, given that racial minorities and women have historically been excluded from many elite institutions of higher education.

Even as the United States has made progress in diversifying positions of power, gendered-racial dynamics continue to perpetuate the exclusion of Black women, who are societally considered to be nonrepresentative of either the gender or racial groups. And, patterns of excluding Black women from being representative of their gender and racial groups emerges early. Recent research suggests that by age five and a half, children are slower to recognize Black women as part of their gender group and are less likely to attribute feminine characteristics to Black women.

These beliefs reflect a tendency to attribute traits to the person, instead of the way that society is structured. However, educating children to think about what the structural causes of inequality are can help prompt them to recognize the unfairness being perpetuated. Although these conversations can be uncomfortable, talking with children is critical to helping them recognize the structural inequalities that exist, instead of leaving them to develop explanations that attribute disparate outcomes to the individual. And, for girls and children from racial minority backgrounds, seeing themselves represented in positions of power can be motivating.

Given the psychological invisibility of Black women in American society—including in how Black women are marginalized when children learn about gender categories—the question is not whether Joe Biden should consider a Black woman for the Supreme Court, but rather, how could he not?