artists drawing of black teens standing

Racial-ethnic connectedness may help protect African American youth from adverse impacts of racism

The study led by graduate Jessie Austin (MPH '19) and Associate Professor Sonya Brady found that African American youth who felt more connected to their racial-ethnic identity and community have greater emotional well-being — even when experiencing racism.

Charlie Plain | July 28, 2021

African American youth in the United States grow up in a society with a long, pervasive and on-going history of interpersonal and institutional racism that forces them to face race-related stressors (i.e., awareness and experiences of racism). School of Public Health researchers recently examined whether race-related stressors and racial-ethnic connectedness — a strong connection to or pride in one’s racial-ethnic identity — were associated with emotional health among African American early adolescents. Additionally, they analyzed whether racial-ethnic connectedness weakened potential associations between racism and emotional problems. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.  

Jessie Austin in a striped shirt smiling.
Study lead author Jessie Austin (MPH ’19).

Researchers interviewed African American youth from an urban school and youth club in Minnesota as a part of a small, community-engaged study.

The study found:

  • African American youth who felt more connected to their racial-ethnic identity and community have greater emotional well-being.
  • Greater racial-ethnic connectedness protects youth from the negative emotional impacts of being aware of racism or experiencing racism. Awareness and experiences of racism were associated with less emotional well-being among African American youth in this study, but only among youth who felt less connected to their racial-ethnic community.

“The findings from this study suggest that African American youth who have a strong, positive connection to their racial-ethnic identity cope better with racism in our country,” said study lead Jessie Austin (MPH ’19), who was a student in SPH when the study was conducted. “We must work to nurture and promote positive racial-ethnic identity development among youth.

However, Austin says it is also important to acknowledge that African American youth and their families should not have to cope with the stress and adversity of racism. Work to promote positive racial-ethnic identity must be paired with antiracism efforts. This includes the removal of discriminatory policies and practices that are detrimental to youth health and well-being.

Austin and study co-author Sonya Brady, an associate professor in SPH, recommend that public health and other youth-serving professionals should:

  • Screen youth for race-related stressors (e.g., discrimination) and racial-ethnic connectedness to facilitate referral to community resources that can reduce stress, build resilience, and impact emotional well-being.
  • Advocate for anti-racist policies, including increasing accountability for mistreatment and brutality among law enforcement, and removing zero tolerance and other exclusionary punishment policies. 

The study authors said additional research is needed to determine whether racial-ethnic connectedness is associated with youths’ emotional well-being over time and whether it’s protective against the association between racism and future negative health outcomes.

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