In Brief

African-American children sense that the work force is racially divided--a perception that influences their own job aspirations, according to research published in the May issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 39, No. 3) by Rebecca S. Bigler, PhD, Cara J. Avehart and Lynn S. Liben, PhD.

In the study, African-American experimenters asked 92 African-American first- and sixth-graders to rate the status of 27 familiar job titles. The children were of low and upper-middle socioeconomic status (SES) and evenly divided by gender.

They rated high- and medium-status occupations in which African Americans are underrepresented, such as airline pilot or school teacher, and low-status jobs in which they are over-represented, such as janitor. They also rated 12 novel occupations; some were obscure jobs, such as a "higgler," a person who sells items on the street, while others were made-up, such as a "tenic," someone in charge of creating handicapped parking spaces for city buildings and stores. To help explain, experimenters showed the children a picture of four people performing the novel occupations. The four people pictured were all African American, all white or evenly divided. The experimenters then asked the children how much they would like to hold each job.

For the familiar jobs, children showed greatest interest in--and gave the highest status to--jobs such as a doctor, followed by medium-status jobs, such as an electrician, followed by low-status jobs, such as a fast-food worker. In other words, the children accorded higher status to jobs with high concentrations of European Americans than to those with high concentrations of African Americans.

Even greater evidence of race's role in the children's job perceptions appeared in the novel-job data, in which they gave higher ratings to jobs depicted with only whites or both races. More specifically, first-graders rated jobs depicted with whites significantly higher in status than those with African Americans or both races.

However, higher SES children and the first-graders tended to show significantly more interest in occupations depicted with only whites and both races. Lower SES children showed no differences in their level of interest across the three picture conditions--meaning that they had less interest than their higher SES peers in performing occupations depicted with whites.

"The results clearly indicate that race has an independent effect on occupational judgments, and thus that it cannot be only the qualities inherent in occupations themselves that affect children's judgments about job status," says Bigler, an associate psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

While Bigler and her colleagues note that the study cannot explain what causes the workers' race to have a differential effect, they say that the study clearly shows that, by 6 years old, African-American children have developed racial schemas that include beliefs about occupations.