Last week, the Internet lit up upon the release of a University of Massachusetts—Amherst study that found white 9-month-old babies were worse than white 5-month-old babies at telling apart African-American adults.
Jezebel asked whether babies learn to be "tiny bigots," MSN wondered whether babies are "so racist," and the E-mail inbox of researcher Lisa Scott filled up with criticism of the study. At first glance, it seems they may have a point—5-month-old babies had no problem telling African-American people apart, but 9-month-olds did. They were also less able to decipher emotions on black people's faces. During those four months, did the babies spend their time at KKK "daykare"?
They didn't—but they also didn't spend any time hanging out with people of other races. All the babies in the study had "little to no previous experience with African-American or other black individuals." And at that age, babies can't tell apart something they're not used to seeing.
"This study does not suggest that babies have developed racist traits or that they're racist," Scott says. "Babies who grow up in multilingual households are able to discriminate sounds in multiple languages, and they tend to get worse if they don't. Similarly, infants who are being exposed to a diverse set of people tend to maintain the ability to tell the differences among those people."
The findings aren't new—at least four previous studies suggested that infants who aren't familiar with other races have difficulty identifying differences in facial structures.
Scott says she hopes the study is the "first step" to better understanding why adults who don't often spend time with other races have difficulty telling individuals apart. "It's definitely an environmental and experiential effect we're finding," she says. But that doesn't mean babies can be racist.
"We were a little surprised the [racist angle] was picked up so heavily by the press," she says. "This finding has been out there quite a bit. I'm not sure what the misunderstanding is … I don't claim to be an expert on social constructs like racism."
Not everyone has hammered Scott or babies over the study—over at HotAir, J.E. Dyer writes that "if 'racism' is defined as any form of noticing that there are physical differences between the races … then the concept has no political or moral meaning whatsoever."
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org