How a popular Seattle writer was labeled an anti-white racist

With no political agenda, Po Bronson co-authored a new bestseller about how children learn. But NurtureShock quickly became caught up in a Rush Limbaugh screed about race and popular culture.
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<i>NurtureShock</i>, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

With no political agenda, Po Bronson co-authored a new bestseller about how children learn. But NurtureShock quickly became caught up in a Rush Limbaugh screed about race and popular culture.

Last week author Po Bronson spoke to an audience of fellow alumni at Lakeside School. The occasion was the publication of a book he co-authored with Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Barely three weeks old, it’s No. 12 on Sunday’s New York Times best-seller list. The book is intriguing, often wise, and wholly benign: a readable report on current research into brain development and learning, with sensible discussions of what the science implies about teaching, learning, and child-rearing. Bronson, a son of Seattle now living in San Francisco, has written five other books, including the best-selling What Should I Do With My Life?, and now writes regularly for New York magazine and for The Guardian in the U.K. (Disclosure: Po was my student 20-some years ago at Lakeside.)

One of the eyebrow-raising moments in Bronson’s graceful, humorous talk last Wednesday was his story of how a chapter in his book got transmogrified into ammunition for Rush Limbaugh’s ongoing war against civil society and common sense.

Twist #1: Newsweek asked Bronson and Merryman for permission to publish as a cover story NurtureShock’s chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” The authors thought the magazine editors liked the chapter’s research-based recommendations that parents talk explicitly and concretely about racial differences the child notices, instead of resorting to pieties about how everybody is created equal or to high-minded abstractions.

Bronson illustrated the idea Wednesday evening with a story about a child who asked his mother, after a year or more of her finding occasions to teach him about the equality of the races, “Mom, what’s equality?” Bronson also told about walking home with his 4-year-old son from his racially mixed pre-school one afternoon, his son whispering excitedly about people they passed: “Daddy, I think he’s African! I think she’s African!” That day the teachers had told the children about the African roots of many Americans, and the boy was thrilled to have found a meaning, an interpretation, for differences he’d noticed for a long time. His discovery entailed no inferences or implications about racial superiority or inferiority, Bronson said. He just loved this fascinating new information about something he’d often seen, and his father helped him express his fascination politely in public, so as not to offend.

The chapter that drew Newsweek’s attention cites research showing that 6-month-olds register visible differences in skin color. Even so, Bronson said, he and his co-author were startled by Newsweek’s cover illustration for the story about their book. Across the forehead in a close-up of a white infant’s face was splashed the titillating question, “Is Your Baby Racist?”

Twist #2: Rush Limbaugh exploded in fury because Maureen Dowd recently wrote a column interpreting as a racist slur Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” at President Obama. What Wilson really meant, said Dowd, was “You lie, boy!”

Twist #3: Limbaugh conflated Dowd’s comment with the Newsweek cover. Never mind NurtureShock’s actual content, never mind the more than six degrees of separation between Bronson’s and Dowd’s writerly worlds. On his website Limbaugh posted a Photoshopped picture of Maureen Dowd holding the infuriating issue of Newsweek.

Twist #4: On his radio program Limbaugh raged about how white people are blamed for being racist in “Obama’s America.” If a white kid gets beat up by a black kid, ranted Limbaugh, “everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white! Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, … white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives!”

Bronson and Merryman untwisted these convolutions on their Wednesday blog post, which includes a link to the Newsweek article, and you can hear the authors talk about children’s perceptions of visible racial differences in a radio interview at Newsweek on the Air. While in Seattle last week Bronson also spoke on KUOW’s “The Conversation” about NurtureShock and why parents and teachers shouldn’t praise kids for being smart (the segment begins at around the 14-minute mark).


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