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Help Black Children? Sure! Teens? Not So Much.

New research finds support for school projects differs according to the race and age of the recipients.
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Many a mailbox is clogged with fervent appeals for charitable donations. Often, these imploring letters and brochures feature heart-tugging images of black children in need.

Newly published research suggests this strategy may be quite effective at getting people to open their wallets — so long as those deprived youngsters have yet to reach adolescence.

“Charitable behavior toward African American children decreases — and negative stereotypical inferences increase — with the age of those children,” reports a research team led by Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Analyzing a pattern of giving to one particular charity, researchers found a greater willingness to contribute to projects serving black youngsters when the recipients were in their first decade of life. In contrast, projects involving white youngsters received more support when they involved kids who were in, or approaching, their teens.

“Positive stereotypes about young children attenuate the otherwise negative stereotype of African Americans,” Small and her colleagues write in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science. They argue that once the cuteness factor is no longer in play, negative attitudes toward blacks get activated and the likelihood of giving goes down.

The researchers used data from “an online charity that allows individuals to donate directly to classrooms in need.” Public school teachers “submit proposals soliciting money for classroom needs (i.e., microscope slides for biology class or paint for art class). Donors browse through proposals and then decide on donations.”

Of the more than 28,000 proposals submitted between April and November 2008, 5,975 featured classroom photos depicting students. The researchers noted whether the classrooms were all-white, all-black or mixed-race. They were then divided into a younger group (pre-kindergarten through fifth grade) and an older group (sixth through 12th grade).

Overall, “proposals with older children were significantly more likely to be funded than proposals featuring younger children,” they report. But while “funding rates increased with age for proposals featuring white students and multiple race students, funding rates decreased with age for proposals with African American students.”

These results “offer both encouraging and discouraging messages,” the researchers write. On the positive side, “African American children elicited a great deal of charitable behavior, even more than white children,” they note. However, this spirit of giving “appears to diminish sharply once African Americans enter adolescence.”

This pattern seems to be the result of unconscious, rather than overt, prejudice. “A study conducted by the organization reveals that its donors are largely female (75.1 percent), highly educated (89.5 percent have a college or graduate degree), and relatively wealthy (41.6 percent of donors report household income greater than $100,000),” the researchers note.

While conceding that “stereotypes are certainly not the only mechanism driving donations,” the researchers offer evidence from a second, smaller study that suggests young African Americans are “more imbued with negative stereotypes” as they approach adulthood.

This unfortunate reality has significant implications for nonprofit organizations, as well as policymakers looking for public support.

“To the extent that a policy is viewed as benefiting African Americans, our results suggest that support is likely to be greater when the focus is on younger children,” Small and her colleagues write. They recommend “framing policies as benefiting younger African Americans, and using imagery and narratives of younger children in appeals for support.”

If that long-promised post-racial society has arrived, it apparently has an age limit.

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