A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:
I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.
I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…
In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.
But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.
Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”
This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.
These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?