Support Systems Offset Racism’s Effect, Study Finds

Jeff Nesmith, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 29, 2006

Washington—Scientists who monitored about 700 African-American youngsters in Georgia and Iowa for five years say they found statistical evidence to back up the long-held belief that supportive families, schools and friends protect a youngster against perceived racial discrimination.

The lengthy study showed expected links between the perception of being a victim of racial discrimination and behavioral and psychological problems.

The researchers said the degree to which a child indicated he or she had been verbally abused or unfairly treated because of race was strongly linked to symptoms of depression and, in the case of boys, problems like shoplifting and fighting.

But these links were significantly weaker, they said, when interviews with the students and their primary caregivers indicated close family relationships, “positive” friendships and good school experiences.

Nurturing parents, good schools and friends who are more apt to say “don’t do that” than “do it again” lessen the impact of discrimination, the researchers found.

“The outlook was brighter for children whose homes, friends and schools protected them from discrimination’s negative influences,” said lead researcher Gene H. Brody, director of the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia.

“Children whose parents stayed involved in their lives, kept track of their whereabouts, treated them with warm affection and communicated clearly with them were less likely to develop problems due to their experiences with discrimination,” he added.

The study, described in the current edition of the journal Child Development, used statistical “multivariant” analyses, in which numerous factors are weighed together to reach conclusions about overall significance.

It is the first to track black children over a period of several years and record their responses to their own perceptions of racial discrimination as they grew from late childhood through early adolescence.

Psychologists have long felt that racial discrimination poses powerful challenges to an African-American child’s development.

Even worrying about the prospect of discrimination may exact a toll by inducing a state of constant watchfulness and anxiety, some have said.

Other research has shown links between perceived racism and low achievement among adults.

A separate study appearing in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday showed that blacks and Latinos in New Hampshire who report being the victims of discrimination tend to have lower scores on standard mental health assessments.

The Georgia and Iowa researchers said they set out to test the hypothesis that as early as age 10 or 12, a child’s perception that he or she is a victim of racial discrimination can establish a life “trajectory” leading to poor performance in school and other problems later.

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In addition to estimating how often they had been victimized by racial discrimination, they and their parents—in most cases mothers—were asked to rate their home environment, school performance and friendships.

The researchers acknowledged that some youths with a tendency to overreact to threats or bias might also be more likely to have conduct problems and depressive symptoms.

To test this possibility, they analyzed whether youngsters who reported being victims of discrimination were more likely to have behavioral problems, and whether those with behavioral problems were more likely to perceive discrimination.

Although these results were not conclusive, Brody said the calculations over the five-year study indicated the perception of discrimination was more likely to lead to adjustment problems than vice versa.

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