Black youths believe inequality creates racial academic achievement gaps


African-American teens blame systemic racism for the academic achievement gap between blacks and whites, a belief that was shaped by their parents and other factors, a new University of Michigan study found.

Researchers examined black adolescents’ beliefs about why black students do not perform as well as white students in school, and the extent to which parents’ messages about race contribute to these beliefs.

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One of these attributions — structural, which involves system racism — increased as students progressed from 10th grade to 12th grade. Their individual attributions, which focus largely on blaming black Americans based on work ethic, attitudes and merit, remained stable, researchers said.

“The current approach allows for a refined understanding of how black youth explain a specific social disparity — educational opportunity — that is relevant to their lives,” said Josefina Bañales, a U-M psychology doctoral candidate and the study’s lead author.

The longitudinal study used data from 454 black adolescents and 310 parents who participated in the Youth Identity Project, which measures academic achievement and identity development. The teens, who were in 10th and 12th grades from 16 schools in the southeast United States, responded to questions about achievement gaps between white and black students.

The teens also reported the frequency of their parents’ use of racial pride, such as going to black cultural events, and preparation for bias socialization — “people might treat you badly due to race” — during the prior year. Adolescents’ views of their parents’ racial socialization were associated with increases in youths’ structural attributions, the study showed.

Bañales and colleagues cited several factors, such as race-related information and the media, as to why youths’ structural attributions increased.

Specifically, although not fully explored in the study, the increased coverage of police shootings of African-Americans, a resurgence of white supremacist groups, and race-focused movements live Black Lives Matter during the past decade are all likely to increase an awareness of racism as black youth progress through adolescence, the researchers said.

In addition, black youth blame inequitable social conditions, such as teachers expecting white kids to do better in school than them, and the behaviors of other black youth for causing the black-white academic achievement gap, she said.

Individual maxims — “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” or “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” — focus on one’s personal responsibility, which could explain why individual attributions are less susceptible to change later in life, Bañales said.

The findings, she said, should prompt parents to have conversations with their children about race. In addition, youth should be given opportunities to discuss the structural causes of societal inequities in their schools and homes.

The study appears in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. Other authors from U-M were doctoral students Aixa Marchand and Nkemka Anyiwo, and Stephanie Rowley, professor of psychology and associate vice president for research — social sciences and humanities. Other authors were Olivenne Skinner of Wayne State University and Beth Kurtz-Costes of the University of North Carolina.


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