Dawn X. Henderson Ph.D.

The Trajectory of Race

Understanding How Young People of Color Cope with Racism

Research highlights the coping strategies youth of color use in schools.

Posted Nov 14, 2019

The capacity of young people of color to persist in the U.S. public education system is a testament to their resilience. So many of them continue to persist in the public education system; from 2000 to 2016, the high school completion rate increased from 64 to 89 percent among Latino Americans and from 84 to 92 percent for Black/African Americans. Youth of color persist despite the presence of racial discrimination, exclusion, microaggressions, unfair discipline, and downright inequity.

Failure and deficits dominate the stories about young people of color rather than consider the unique ways in which these young people cope with racism. Pointing one finger toward deficits of young people usually means four fingers are pointing back at broader problems in the U.S. public education system. Here are just a few:

  • Despite Black/African American and Latino students meeting the standards to be referred and placed into academically gifted programs, they remain under-referred and underrepresented. Some evidence indicates their white peers are more likely to get referred to such programs when they do not meet these standards. 
  • There are lower per-pupil spending, less qualified teachers, and more policing at schools with higher concentrations of students of color. Many schools with higher concentrations of young people of color also exist in school districts with higher levels of poverty—this can translate into about $1,000 less per pupil.
    • One study found that many school districts with high concentrations of low-income families do not receive extra resources or funds from state or federal agencies.
  • Students of color (i.e., Black/African American, Latino, or Native American) are more likely to receive a longer suspension and out-of-school suspension when compared to their peers.   
  • One study found that many school districts with high concentrations of low-income families do not receive extra resources or funds from state or federal agencies.

What do youth of color rely on to cope with such stressors? In the Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) Collaborative, researchers asked a sample of 172 undergraduate students to indicate how did they cope with racial stressors in their K-12 schools. Here are the results:

  • 84 percent reported, "I accepted that this happened and that it can't' be changed"
  • 57 percent reported, "I placed trust in God" and "I discussed my feelings with someone" equally
  • 32 percent reported "I got really upset and let my emotions out (verbally or physically)”
  • Less than 10 percent reported,  "I used alcohol or drugs to make me feel better"
  • Less than 10 percent reported, "I refused to believe it happened"

Acceptance for young people of color can be an adaptive response to racism and its immediate effects. Having the "serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference" may be a belief that allows young people to direct their energy toward the things they can change. Nakamura and Orth (2005) posit:

“Acceptance can be an adaptation to unchangeable negative events by helping to maintain the individual's psychological well-being and capacity to act. Acceptance means to face reality even if it does not fit one's expectations or desires, and the willingness to deal with this reality nevertheless." (p.282).

A relationship with God or others connects young people of color to a broader ethos of faith, interdependence, and relationships with others. Seeking a higher source or placing trust in a spiritual being to get through adversity is deeply tied to communities of color. Several studies cite relying on a spiritual entity is a culturally congruent coping method that provides meaning and validation during times of stress (Kim, Kendall, & Webb, 2015; VanderWeele et al., 2017). Having access to someone to share frustration, the hurt, and pain associated with racism can help young people understand they exist in a caring and validating community. Young people can discuss their feelings and find guidance through the ties and relationships they form with others.

Schwartz and colleagues (2010) suggest non-European groups have brought their own cultural value system into the United States. The importance of having strong ties with one's family, community, and a spiritual entity is evident throughout. Finding others can prevent denial and also help young people to acknowledge racism is real and they have a community to rely on in order to manage through it.  

Our greatest challenge is to dismantle racism in the public education system, reduce the presence of racial discrimination, exclusion, and inequity. However, our greatest opportunity may be to focus our work on improving how youth of color access those around them who can affirm, validate, and reinforce mattering. An inability to manage racism and cope with related stressors can be detrimental to the well-being of youth of color and interrupt their ability to persist in the U.S. public education system.

Young people need to believe they have others around them who will advocate against racism and who will create conditions for them to learn and be successful.  

Photo by Markus Spiske @ Unsplash
Source: Photo by Markus Spiske @ Unsplash


Kim, P. Y., Kendall, D. L., & Webb, M. (2015). Religious coping moderates the relation between racism and psychological well-being among Christian Asian American college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 87-94.

VanderWeele, T. J., Yu, J., Cozier, Y. C., Wise, L., Argentieri, M. A., Rosenberg, L., ... & Shields, A. E. (2017). Attendance at religious services, prayer, religious coping, and religious/spiritual identity as predictors of all-cause mortality in the Black Women's Health Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 185, 515-522.

Schwartz, S. J., Weisskirch, R. S., Hurley, E. A., Zamboanga, B. L., Park, I. J., Kim, S. Y., ... & Greene, A. D. (2010). Communalism, familism, and filial piety: Are they birds of a collectivist feather?. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(4), 548.

Nakamura, Y. M. & Orth, U. (2005). Acceptance as a coping reaction. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 64, 281-292.