Children as young as four hold racist views, identifying black people as potential troublemakers and criminals, according to shocking new research.
The results, to be presented by the scientist and author Robert Winston this week, show that young children from all backgrounds prefer white people, whom they associate with success and trustworthiness. He was concerned to find a majority of black children hold the same views, with many saying they want to be white when they grow up.
Lord Winston's experiment was carried out for the BBC's Child of Our Time, a series that tracks the development of children from birth through childhood. Broadcast on Tuesday, the programme, which he presents, shows them responding to a series of images, each containing in turn four photographs of the faces of men, women, boys or girls. Only one of the faces in each sequence was white.
The children were asked to pick out the face of the person they wanted as their friend, who they would choose to sit next to, which person they thought would be most likely to get into trouble and who would be most successful. Almost all the white children in the survey associated positive qualities exclusively with the photographs of white children or adults. More than 50 per cent of the black children interviewed gave similar responses. These attitudes were just as prevalent among affluent children as among those from poor backgrounds. In contrast, people with darker features were viewed as likely to be law-breakers and low achievers.
Lord Winston said the study raises new concerns that British society is "breeding a kind of racism" at an early stage in life.
"We have failed as a society to promote respect of individuals from ethnic minorities," said Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London. "We should be encouraging five-year-olds to have an ethnic identity. There is a lack of respect for blacks in the Army, in the police, and we still don't have many black Members of Parliament.
"In the US, they have statues of Martin Luther King, but in Britain we do not have the same black icons. I don't want to claim that Britain is a racist society - we have a wonderful history of tolerance - but I am concerned about it."
He believes the point is illustrated by the experience of Tyrese Blake-Hakeem, a black child who is being tracked by the BBC series. His family have educated him about his heritage by taking him to the US where black role models are more prominent. Tyrese was one of the few children who pointed to a photograph of a black child when the researcher asked him who was most likely to be successful or who he would like as his friend.
The findings are based on a University of Kent study. Adam Rutland, co-author and senior lecturer in psychology, said the results were in line with earlier research. "Children pick up on racist stereotypes at an early age," he said.
Lord Ouseley, a former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said: "It is not that role models don't exist, it is just they are so overwhelmed by negativity associated with their community."
'Child of Our Time' is broadcast on BBC1, Tuesday 6 January at 9pmReuse content