It’s hardly a revelation that adolescents belonging to visible minorities often face racial/ethnic discrimination. Cases such as the Trayvon Martin shooting have polarized American society and generated anger that will likely take years to die down. Many African-American, Hispanic, Asian or other visible minority adolescents across North America can describe experiences from their own lives in which they experienced discrimination, whether from teacher, police officers or even people of their own age.  

But what kind of psychological toll can this kind of unfair treatment have on young people?  Whether it takes the form of police accusing them of acting “suspiciously” in public places, being harshly disciplined at school, or receiving verbal or physical abuse from peers, the impact lingers over time. Though psychologists have long studied the impact of discrimination on minority adolescents, there are still unanswered questions about what causes the discrimination to happen and the how adolescents can deal with it.

Ironically, racial and ethnic tension in schools and neighbourhoods often rises with increased ethnic diversity. As more minority groups come in and the proportion of established minority group populations change, cultural clashes create a negative racial or ethnic climate. This triggers greater tension as well as incidents of verbal or physical abuse. Since teaching staff are often unable to keep up with these changes, minority group members often see themselves as being “on their own” and not being able to rely on authority figures to help. 

As a result, adolescents who experience racial/ethnic discrimination frequently  experience more psychological distress and poorer performance in school. Measuring the impact of discrimination is often difficult  since it can be hard to detect at times. Even the source of the discrimination, whether from authority figures, teachers, or peers can make a difference in how it affects young people. Teacher discrimination, for instance, is more likely to affect how well adolescents do in school. Abuse or bullying coming from a fellow student, on the other hand, is more likely to affect self-esteem and social development.    

To look at some of the consequences of discrimination on minority youths, a new research study published in Development Psychology examined 876 Hispanic, African American and Asian American students over time. Conducted by Aprile D. Benner of the University of Texas at Austin and Sandra Graham of the University of California at Los Angeles, the study examined some of the ecological factors surrounding discrimination and its outcome.  

As Benner and Graham explained the reasons for their study, we relate to people in our lives in different ways depending on the social context in which we find ourselves. Adolescents spend most of their time in school or in our neighbourhoods and how they interact in these settings can shape how they function as adults later in life. For young people who belong to visible minority groups however, the overall racial climate and how it affects the behaviour of the people around them can have an even more dramatic impact.

How minority youths see the racial climate depends on what kinds of signals they receive from the people around them. This includes direct discrimination from fellow students, school-related discrimination (i.e., from school staff and formal school policies), or neighbourhood discrimination, especially by police officers, store owners, or service providers.   

In schools, if the rules are fair (and, just as importantly, are seen to be fair) and school staff are openly welcoming, many of the problems associated with racial and ethnic discrimination can be reduced. School-based discrimination is mostly limited to how well students do academically but, attitudes of individual teachers can make a difference in the mental health and racial awareness of youths being targeted.

The discrimination many minority youths face from police officers (especially as a result of racial profiling) has a different kind of effect though. Being openly targeted due to race often makes minority youths more militant in upholding their rights and creates a sense of cynicism about their prospects in society as a whole. Racial awareness, or the perception of how people belonging to a specific racial or ethnic group is treated by society, is often built up based on personal experiences, seeing how other people in their group are treated, and news stories of police or legal harassment which is ignored by the legal system.

In their study, the researchers surveyed 876 adolescents with an average age of 17 who attended high school in the Los Angeles area. The sample was 61 percent Hispanic, 24 percent African American, and 15 percent Asian American. Along with survey questions measuring perceived racial and ethnic discrimination, psychological measures, school records and teacher ratings were also collected to measure the effect of discrimination. 

As Benner and Graham predicted, statistical analysis of the survey data showed increased ethnic diversity in school led to strong racial and ethnic tension. On the other hand, less ethnic diversity in the neighbourhoods where the adolescents in the study lived meant increased racial and ethnic tension because high concentrations of specific minorities are seen as more threatening.    

The study also confirmed that discrimination affected minority youths in different ways depending on the source of the discrimination: whether from fellow students, teaching staff, or from  authority figures (police officers, shopkeepers, etc.) As a result, minority youths come to expect unfair treatment by police and shopkeepers and are more likely to recall incidents that confirm their beliefs. Discrimination in school can also interact with discrimination in the neighbourhood and can help reinforce attitudes about being unfairly targeted.   

Abusive treatment from other students appears more likely to lead to mental health problems in minority youths. This included lower self-esteem, greater social stress, and more anxiety in social settings. With teacher discrimination however, the most likely outcome was that minority youths tended to do more poorly in school including poorer grades.   

So what do these results mean in practical terms? Though this is only a single study, it seems important to recognize that the source of discrimination minority youths encounter can have a major impact on how they respond. Constructive activities that encourage ways of interacting  among different ethnic groups can help defuse tensions and reduce incidents of peer abuse.   Cooperative learning programs allow youths from different backgrounds develop a shared group identity while extracurricular activities encourage more mixing between different groups.  

School programs designed to help improve the mental health of minority youths will need to focus on the verbal and physical abuse they are receiving from other students.  This includes anti-bullying programs. Schools also need to recognize that teacher bias can have a serious impact on how minority youths function in the classroom. Though defusing racial and ethnic intolerance in the community takes time and effort,  school programs can help minority youths cope with the stress involved in facing discrimination as well as learning how to function in society as adults.  

Programs designed to defuse racial/ethnic tension also need to educate teachers, police officers, parents, store owners and other adult authority figures. Recognizing that discrimination leads to a self-perpetuating cycle can help reduce the tensions that have become a way of life in many places.

As Benner and Graham point out in their summary:  “Ours is a society in which the racial/ethnic diversity of the under-18 population is increasing dramatically, in which gay and lesbian youth are initiating the coming-out process at younger ages, and in which childhood obesity is growing at alarming rates. Yet we also live in a society where racial prejudices, homophobic attitudes, and anti-obesity sentiments run deep.” Intervening to reduce these tensions is an important part of promoting mental health for all young people. 

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