It’s Time to Treat Racism as a Target for Intervention

BlogHealthy SchoolsFeb 17 2016

In December 2015, a grand jury declined to indict the rookie police officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy carrying a toy gun in a park in Cleveland. Responding officers said they believed Rice—who was “big for his age”—was much older than 12. To some social science researchers, these characterizations would not come as a surprise, because Rice was black. Research published in 2014 by the American Psychological Association found people perceive black boys as bigger and older than they actually are. What’s worse is that newly published research from the University of Iowa found seeing the faces of just kindergarten-aged black boys was sufficient to send white study participants into heightened-threat mode.

Race and ethnicity have important implications for culture, identity, and well-being. Children of different races show large differences in well-being, including health, mortality, school performance and attainment, and access to family and community resources. Neither entirely de jure (by law) or de facto (a matter of fact), this is a more systematic form of racial discrimination. A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that many in the United States still harbor beliefs about racial and ethnic minorities based on racist stereotypes. Blacks are also more likely than whites to say a lot needs to be done to achieve racial equality in the U.S.

Sadly, and as seen in the case of Tamir Rice, race is more than just a demographic descriptor. For many black children, race is a determinant of poorer outcomes.

Discrimination lowers academic performance for black students

Last month, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent expressed concern about deeply ingrained racial discrimination in U.S. schools. Black students are likelier to have less access to advanced courses, have more inexperienced teachers, attend schools where overall climate for learning is deficient, and face tougher disciplinary consequences than their white peers. While black boys were suspended or expelled from school three times more often than white boys during the 2011-2012 school year, black girls were suspended from school six times more often than white girls. Students who get suspended from school multiple times by the end of 10th grade are overwhelmingly more likely to drop out of high school—and high school dropouts are significantly more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. According to one estimate, on a typical day in 2000, approximately one in three young, black, male high school dropouts were in prison or jail. Not only are black students disproportionately subjected to school-related arrests, but they are also more likely to attend a school with security so heavy and metal detectors so obvious that it looks like a jail.

Household wealth for black families continues to lag behind

Poverty and its harmful effects also disproportionately affect black children. At 57 percent, black children are less likely than either white or Hispanic children to have at least one parent with secure employment. Nearly half (45 percent) of black children younger than three are poor, and one in four black infants and toddlers lives in households that are food insecure. Among peers, black children are also the most likely to live in deep poverty. The median net worth for black households in 2011 was lower than it was in 1984, while white households’ net worth was almost 11 percent higher. Among all children, black children are the second most likely to live in working poor families.

Black children are more likely to be victims of violence, experience incarceration of a parent

Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to suffer from attachment problems, regressive behavior, anxiety, and depression, and to have aggression and conduct problems. In 2011-12, black children were most likely to live in neighborhoods their parents reported as never or sometimes safe. A quarter of black parents say they worried about their child getting shot, compared to one in five white parents. Firearm deaths, which comprise a majority of teen homicides and suicides, but also include accidental deaths, were highest in 2014 among black teens (47 per 100,000 males, and 5 per 100,000 females).

Despite black children being more likely to be the victims of violence, just 14 percent of African Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in local police officers to treat blacks and whites equally. Blacks and whites are sharply divided in their assessments of police performance. Nearly seven in ten blacks say they have not too much or no confidence at all in police using weapons appropriately; by contrast, most whites (60 percent) have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in police department to appropriately use this type of equipment. In 2013, nearly one-quarter of young black males said they had been treated unfairly by the police in the last 30 days. Moreover, about twice as high a percentage of black children as white children have experienced the incarceration of a parent (11.5 and 6.0 percent, respectively, or 1 in 9, compared with 1 in 17).

More research is needed, but there are still things you can do now

Even though more research is needed to identify strategies that address the issues specifically affecting black children and families, there are promising interventions at multiple levels that can improve outcomes for these youth. First, universal violence prevention programs can be effective in ethnically diverse communities and in communities with high rates of poverty or crime. Second, there are several promising school-centered approaches. Educators can create learning opportunities for students to dispel stereotypes, an effort that could be reinforced by  recruiting more black teachers. The Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative argues that to eliminate the school discipline gap, people must also start talking about it more. Finally, parental involvement is another key to improving outcomes for black youth. Students of all races with parents who are involved in their school tend to have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance, and are more likely to complete high school than students whose parents are not involved in their school.

While history repeatedly shows the resilience and strength of black children and families, it devastates me to think that society might one day become so numb to statistics like those above that future generations of black boys and girls will start accepting racism this deadly as “normal.” This Black History Month and beyond, let us pledge to stop gliding over racial disparities and start looking at racism itself as a target for intervention, so that we can improve these appalling outcomes for future black children and youth.