05/21/2010 06:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Inferiority 360°

"What skin color do you want?"

Two children about 4 or 5 years old were asked this question by CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper. As he pointed to images with skin tones ranging from white to very dark, a black girl, dressed in pink, jabbed her finger on the almost white illustration: "Because it looks lighter," she told Cooper. Then, looking at her own hand and rubbing her knuckles she said: "I don't like the way brown looks... it looks kinda nasty for some reason."


The first offering of the CNN series, "Black or White: Kids on Race," aired May 17 on Cooper's "AC360°." The series explores the findings of CNN's commissioned study on children's racial beliefs, attitudes and preferences. From the mouths of babes we learn that nearly 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the majority of black and white children still favor light or white skin and believe adults share their sentiment.

The consultant CNN hired for the study, child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, found that white children, as a whole, identified the color of their own skin with positive attributes while ascribing negative attributes to darker skin. Most identified darker images as "dumb," "mean" and designated dark skin as the color adults don't like.

That whites at such young ages perceive blacks negatively is indeed unsettling. What's even more disturbing, however, as the CNN study illustrates, is that black youth also have overwhelmingly damaging perceptions of and about themselves.

Although the responses captured in living color are shocking, they really shouldn't be surprising. Before shifting to the role parents play in shaping these negative attitudes, the first installment flitted past the major motivator in the conditioning process -- the 24/7, 360 degrees of white superiority/black inferiority messaging encoded in mass media.

Think about it; on any given morning, an average child, black or white, will be deluged with messages and images that depict whites as preferable and blacks as secondary or inferior characters. They'll see cartoons or sitcoms on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel with whites as lead characters and, maybe, black sidekicks or a few dark faces in the mix. If adult programming is on, they'll see commercials, programs and news items with the same disproportionate white/black ratio. Driving to school, young eyes will absorb mostly whites on billboards pushing products and services offered by white-owned companies. Unless the educational institution has made an enlightened effort, children will be taught about white accomplishments, from books with majority white historical figures in schools that are more than likely named after white men.

Media, particularly television, adds to negative perceptions. Black youth watch about 24 hours more television per week than the average young, white viewer. Several scientific studies indicate that, without parental filters, some black children consider media messages and images authentic reflections of who they are and how they act.

Putting the bulk of the blame on parents is shortsighted. For centuries, American adults have been brainwashed with an onslaught of white superiority/black inferiority political, social and media conditioning. Mass communication -- films, video games, music videos and television in particular -- has maximum impact in the way children learn societal rules, regulations and values. Parents -- assuming they are fully present in their child's life -- are no match for constant, omnipotent media bombardment.

It's going to be difficult to reverse an institutionalized race-based value system but, hopefully, the CNN study and series will move us beyond shock and awe and toward an orchestrated movement to reclaim the minds of young people. If we are to change how students -- white and black -- perceive race and skin color, we have to employ modern day weaponry and a 24/7, 360° reclamation campaign. Professors, entertainers, software designers, educators, preachers, parents and consumers must don innovative hats. The computer screen, You Tube, Ipad, the Kindle, interactive curricula and other New Media opportunities are the weapons of today. With social media sites serving as battlefields, informed and progressive consumers can strategize, support and further this crusade.

It's probably too late for adults already conditioned to accept white as the universal right. However, New Media gives us a shot at redemption. But, when it comes to the minds of our children, the 21st Century revolution must not only be televised, it must be digitized!

Tom Burrell is a marketing communications pioneer, Advertising Hall of Fame inductee, and author of Brainwashed Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. In 2007, Burrell founded the Resolution Project, a nonprofit dedicated to using New Media as a tool to inspire and uplift African Americans