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Systemic racism stymies child and family development
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Systemic racism stymies child and family development

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“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Frederick Douglass’ words, written in 1855, are not just inspirational — they are true. Research shows that investing in high-quality early childhood supports from birth to 5 can lead to a 13% return on investment (ROI) annually.

A community that supports each and every child and family can reach its full potential; high-quality early childhood education can set all children on a path toward academic, social, and civic success.

We also know that significant disparities in outcomes across racial groups exist through the lifespan in education, health, employment, and criminal justice, and the early childhood years are not immune to these racial disparities.

In fact, the same systemic racism that has led to great injustices in outcomes like high school graduation, access to healthcare, and lifetime earnings, mold the early childhood years and stymie the health and development of children and families.

We believe that investing in systems change, interventions, and race-conscious policies in the early childhood years could potentially make the biggest difference in building a truly equitable community.

From available early childhood data, the biggest concerns around systemic and institutional racism include:

Infant Mortality: Infant mortality and poor infant health outcomes take an emotional and financial toll on the community as a whole. In Wisconsin, babies born to African-American mothers are nearly three times more likely to die before their first birthdays than babies born to white mothers. The data shows that chronic stress due to racial and institutional discrimination is a key driver of poor birth outcomes. Researchers have explored root cause factors such as poverty, living in under-resourced neighborhoods, or low educational attainment, and numerous studies reach the same conclusion: Even after considering the influence of these factors, racism accounts for huge differences.

Expulsions & Discipline in Early Childhood & Childcare Settings: Young students who are expelled or suspended from childcare or PreK are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not. Some estimates have found that expulsion rates in early childhood programs are even higher than in K12 settings. All estimates have found large racial disparities, with young boys of color being suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates. And while Black and Brown children are not more likely to engage in behaviors that call for disciplinary action, they are more likely than their peers to be disciplined for the same actions. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Black children make up 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of preschool children suspended more than once.

We could be making drastic improvements in our community outcomes as a whole, given the ROI from investing in early childhood, by rebuilding systems affecting early childhood and ensuring equitable structures that will eliminate systemic racism.

For example, state or district policy could prohibit suspension and expulsion for young children while providing supports to teachers and providers. Or, investing in doulas of color who provide support to expectant moms of color could improve maternal and child health disparities.

Creating equitable educational opportunities for children from all walks of life will help, and some of this is beginning to happen through Early Learning Nation, an ambitious 3-year countywide action plan focused on early learning, with over 20 local partners at the table.

Systemic racism will not change overnight, but by staying conscious in the cause, focusing on the data, and dismantling and rebuilding our systems so they put our Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and families of color at the center, we could possibly maximize that 13% ROI—and maybe even more?

Lynn Debilzen is the manager, Birth to 8 Initiatives of Building Our Future in Kenosha County and a member of the Coalition for Dismantling Racism.

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