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Young Black Male Experiences

Abstract

African Americans face a high risk of negative experiences connected to subtle racism, as in the cases of police brutality. It became a pivotal social justice issue in the United States after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter. Negative experiences, including police brutality, have spillover effects, meaning they not only affect the physical well-being of actual victims but also impact the psychological well-being of a disproportionally targeted group indirectly. This study aims to establish whether the parents of young black males experience higher levels of mental distress due to the more significant perceived threat faced by their children in everyday interactions with the public, in general, and police brutality, specifically.

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Summary

Introduction

Social Significance

African Americans as a community regularly face negative experiences of racism that impact their physical and mental well-being both directly and indirectly. The use of lethal force toward civilians is a telling example. Alang, McAlpine, McCreedy, and Hardeman (2017) point out that the absence of a standard definition and reliable statistics make it difficult to quantify. According to one source, police kills more than 300 blacks every year (Bor, McAlpine, McCreedy, & Hardeman, 2018). According to another one, this number remains between 200 and 300 (“Number of people shot to death,” 2020).

However, multiple sources agree that African Americans encounter a much greater risk – from two to three times higher than their counterparts – to become a victim of police violence (Bor et al., 2018; “Number of people shot to death,” 2020). Admittedly, there are also objections stating that a large share of African American casualties in police violence is not necessarily an evidence of bias (Tregle, Nix, & Alpert, 2019). Yet even though the numerical data regarding police brutality against blacks may be misinterpreted, one cannot deny that it constitutes a social issue of current interest.

While the use of lethal force against civilians is only one example of the negative experiences that African Americans encounter, the matter in its current shape has risen to the forefront of national attention due to this particular issue. In 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood crime watch regulator from Sanford, Florida, shot Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black high-school student coming home from a convenience store (Teasley, Schiele, Adams, & Okilwa, 2018).

The acquittal of Zimmerman in 2013 caused widespread discontent across the country. In 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City became victims of police brutality, the former shot down and the latter dying because of a chokehold (Garney, 2016). These three high-profile cases illustrated the higher risks of being victims of excessive force encountered by African Americans and solidified the image of a typical victim as a young black male wearing a hoodie sweatshirt.

As demonstrated above, the rates of police brutality targeting African Americans remain consistently high, meaning that the BLM’s case remains valid. However, BLM also faces widespread criticism, as from the proponents of All Lives Matter slogan in social media, who accuse the movement of “being exclusive and privileging Black lives over any other lives” (Garney, 2016, p. 12). Therefore, while statistics demonstrate higher risks encountered by blacks, society at large still debates the issue.

It is due to this fact that the effects of young black males’ experiences with the general public – including law enforcement – and the impact of these experiences on the African American community as a whole remains a topic of current interest and acute social significance. Assessing the stigmatization of young black males from the African American perspective will be useful in evaluating the scope of the problem.

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Statement of the Problem

While a young black male may be the most frequent target of stigmatization, it is the African American community as a whole that endures the impact. It happens because, apart from the direct effects of the negative experiences on its immediate victims, one should not discount its impact on the disproportionally targeted community as a whole. According to contemporary psychological research, the excessive use of force by law enforcement has spillover effects that impact even those not directly exposed to violence.

Bor, Venkataramani, Williams, and Tsai (2018) demonstrated that this notion applies fully to police brutality and the African American community. Even those who have not been victims of excessive use of force or have not even encountered it personally are still stressed solely by the virtue of belonging to the same racial group that bears the brunt of police violence in the United States.

Purpose of Study

The purpose of this paper is to determine whether the experiences of young black males affect the levels of mental distress among their parents in the contemporary United States as compared to young white males and their parents. For the purpose of this study, the following research questions were addressed:

  1. Do the experiences of young blacks with the public in general vs. the same experiences of young whites create different levels of mental distress in the parents of both categories, respectively?
  2. Do the experiences of young blacks with law enforcement specifically vs. the same experiences of young whites create different levels of mental distress in the parents of both categories, respectively?
  3. Does having a young black male child increases the level of mental distress in parents as compared to having a white or black female child?

As a part of this study, the investigation included one research hypothesis:

The negative encounters of young black males with the public and law enforcement resulting in violence and death tend to affect young black males more disproportionally than white males. This effect produces a higher level of mental distress in the parents of young black males as opposed to those of young white males, as the parents of the first category fear for the lives of their family members more.

Literature Review

Introduction

Scholarly interest toward the negative experiences faced by African Americans, has increased sharply during the recent years. Police brutality and racial profiling has been the focus of many works in the field due to the enduring social significance of and the public attention to the issue. While the accusations against the existing law enforcement practices are common and widespread in the public discourse, changing those constitutes a political rather than scholarly issue. Leaving political initiatives to other actors, researchers have generally centered their attention on several areas of interest.

These areas include identifying the most suitable theoretical perspective for a cohesive analysis of contemporary racism encountered by African Americans, establishing the effects of police brutality on the disproportionally targeted populations, and demonstrating the implications of the increased awareness of racial profiling in policing for different professional groups. The works in both these areas contain findings directly relevant for the present study.

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This literature review will follow a thematic approach and organize the existing studies depending on the scholars’ field of interest and research questions posed. First of all, it will briefly cover the application of critical race theory to the experiences of young black males in the contemporary United States and the indirect impact of said experiences on the African American community as a whole.

Secondly, it will examine the current scholarly consensus on the indirect effects of police brutality against young black males on those who do not experience this violence firsthand but still feel targeted and, therefore, affected as a community. After that, the literature review will briefly summarize the implications of police brutality against young black males for professionals insofar as these implications relate directly to the topic of the study.

Literature Review

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory (CRT) is a theoretical and conceptual framework that approaches and analyzes racial issues from a broader perspective than conventional civil rights groups or ethnic studies. Its primary focus is on “studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power” that permeates American society on virtually all levels (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017, p. 3). As Delgado and Stefancic (2017) point out, this framework originated in the 1980s, when a group of scholars arrived at a conclusion that the advances of the Civil Rights era were being stalled or even rolled back, thus reinstating inherently racist practices under the guise of equality.

By applying the methods of critical legal studies to the matters of race, racism, and power – and also partially borrowing from radical feminism – the proponents of CRT came to question the liberal approach to race stressing formal legal equality (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). CRT maintains the principle of legal indeterminacy – the notion that nit every legal case is solved correctly – and supplements it with the concept of socially constructed roles (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Consequently, CRT approaches race from a broader angle than traditional legal studies.

Delgado and Stefancic (2017) note that CRT perceives racism not as an exception, but as a part of the everyday cultural landscape of the United States regularly encountered by everyone living in the country. As the authors put it, “racism is ordinary, not aberrational,” and constitutes a widely accepted set of social practices (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017, p. 8). Another principal tenet of CRT, as outlined by Delgado and Stefancic (2017), is that inherent racism serves an essential social purpose for the dominant racial group – in the case of the United States, the white part of its population.

It follows from the first observation that the dominant racial group may perceive racism as a normal way of conducting professional duties – as when disproportionally targeting young black males over other population groups. The second observation demonstrates that the dominant group has no incentive to challenge or change the existing state of things – as when acquitting Zimmerman. By extension, the psychological pressure put on the family members and, specifically, parents of young black males becomes another subtle manifestation of racism that does not contradict the law directly.

In their work on race and education, Howard and Navarro (2016) outline several basic principles for a CRT scholar to follow. One of these principles is challenging the dominant perspective and representing the perspective of a subordinated or discriminated racial group (Howard and Navarro, 2016). Another principle is the reliance on the experiential knowledge of the individuals of color and their communities as a primary source of information for the studies (Howard and Navarro, 2016).

As Howard and Navarro (2016) put it, “CRT research centers the narratives of people of color when attempting to understand social inequality” (p. 6). Thus, the existing research on CRT provides a full theoretical foundation for studying police violence targeting African Americans as a manifestation of implicit racism using the experiences of the young black males’ parents as a primary source.

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Indirect Effects of Negative Experiences

Bor, Venkataramani, Williams, and Tsai (2018) demonstrated that the adverse impact of police brutality against young black males affects not only the immediate victims but the African American community in general. According to the authors, police brutality targeting a specific sub-group tends to have spillover effects even on those not directly affected by or exposed to the violence. Bor et al. (2018) substantiated their hypothesis by establishing a correlation between the number of police killings of unarmed African Americans in the state of residence and the number of the days in which the mental state of a black respondent residing in the same state was reported as not good.

Thus, there are studies confirming that police brutality against young black males impacts the African American community as a whole by having an adverse effect on the mental health of even those of its members who have neither been subjected nor witnessed police violence personally.

Alang et al. (2017) classified the impact of police brutality on the health outcomes of the African American population of the United States. Overall, the authors established five different effects of police violence that tends to target young black males disproportionally. These include fatal injuries that contribute to mortality rates, adverse psychological responses that also increase morbidity, and stress caused by the racist public reactions, financial strains caused by incarceration, and systematic disempowerment brought by institutional racism (Alang et al., 2017).

Even if one discounts the latter two as only related to the health outcomes by proxy, it is still evident that a direct increase in morbidity caused by fatal trauma is only a small part of the overall impact of police brutality. Hence, research reveals that the indirect effects of police brutality on mental health not only exist but actually account for most of its impacts.

There are also studies that analyze the specific impact of police brutality against young black males on adult African American parents. Thomas and Blackmon (2015) pointed out that the murder of Trayvon Martin resulted in increased levels of racial socialization among Black parents. As the authors noted, shootings led to the parents stressing the reality of racism in their interactions with the children and trying to provide specific strategies for dealing with is manifestations (Thomas & Blackmon). However, this study centered mainly on the parent-child relationship rather than on the mental distress experienced by the parents themselves. Therefore, existing studies confirm that black parents react to police brutality, but have not yet analyzed its specific effect – of lack thereof – on the level of their mental distress.

The existence of spillover effects is why this research is valid even though the numerical data on the police-involving killings themselves may be inconclusive. Tregle et al. (2019) note that the number of people killed in police-involving accidents by race is an imperfect denominator, as African Americans generally encounter police officers more often than their white counterparts, meaning the risk of being shot per encounter is not as different between the races. However, it is not so much the facts of police brutality themselves but the perception of police violence as a clear threat that contributes to mental distress levels of a community that feels disproportionally targeted. Answering whether police intentionally targets African Americans disproportionally is beyond the scope of this research, but the perception of such disproportionate targeting definitely exists – and as long as it does, it remains one of the factors potentially influencing mental distress levels of parents who think their children are threatened.

Professional Implications of Negative Experiences

Numerous studies analyze the implications of the negative experiences, such as police brutality, faced by African Americans for law enforcement, but the research concentrated on social work and counseling is of more value for this paper. Teasley et al. (2018) maintain that social work with African Americans may only be successful if it resides on a firm understanding of the difference in perspective between black and white Americans. Sackett and Dogan (2019) second this notion by emphasizing that awareness of the client’s perspectives and worldviews is a necessary prerequisite of moving forward collaboratively in counseling.

It means that counseling a black client requires at least the general idea of how police brutality and other social experiences affect the African American community. Washington and Henfield (2019) also emphasize the importance of the perspectives of marginalized populations for counseling. To summarize, the existing body of research urges to carefully consider the views and experiences of racism as encountered by African Americans and stresses the importance of doing so in numerous professional areas. This circumstance makes this study one of current interest and adds to its relevance.

Conclusion

The importance of implicit racism as a social issue and of police violence disproportionally targeting African Americans as its evident manifestation prompted a keen scholarly interest in the subject. As of now, there is plentiful research considering different aspects of police brutality against the black population of the United States. Scholars of critical race theory have offered a ready theoretical and conceptual framework for the study of implicit racism as an everyday reality and a widely accepted set of behavioral norms and practices in contemporary American society.

Those studying the specific impacts of police brutality of the disproportionally targeted population have established that actual physical trauma and the resulting increase in morbidity constitute only a small part of its effects. A much broader range of adverse psychological outcomes best covered by an umbrella term “mental distress” affects the African American community as a whole rather than the individual victims. Finally, recognizing and incorporating the perspectives of marginalized populations becomes increasingly valuable in numerous professional fields, such as counseling and social work.

However, there is still no study that would establish the specific effect – or lack thereof – that the experiences of young black males, including but not limited to police brutality, have on African American parents. There are authors who analyze the impact of police violence on black parents, but they have so far focused on parent-child interactions rather than the mental distress levels of black mothers and fathers. Therefore, a study of the interrelations between the experiences of young black males and the mental distress levels of African American parents is one of current interest and evident social relevance.

Methodology

Introduction

African Americans experience racist social practices regularly, which affect their physical and mental well-being. Police shootings and other police-related deaths of civilians are an evident example, since, statistically speaking, African Americans are targeted disproportionally in such occurrences of police brutality (“Number of people shot to death,” 2020). Younger African Americans are in particular danger, since the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner solidified the image of a typical victim of police brutality as a young black male in a hoodie (Thomas & Blackmon, 2015).

However, police brutality that disproportionally targets a specific part of the population affects not only those who encounter it directly but also the population group as a whole (Alang et al., 2017; Bor et al., 2018). It is plausible to assume that the negative experiences in children and the increased awareness about these experiences will cause increased levels of mental distress in all parents who fear for their children’s safety. It is also reasonable to presume that African American parents will experience higher levels of mental distress when compared to their white counterparts.

When members of a particular population group encounter negative experiences at significantly higher rates than the others, it crates a social environment where said group feels constantly threatened, which may lead to mental health problems. If a discriminated group is selected based on racial criteria, such a situation constitutes a subtle manifestation of racism that occurs while not being directly supported by any formalized norm of discrimination (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Therefore, the spillover effects of negative social experiences of young black males, including but not limited to police brutality, on the mental health of their parents constitute a social justice issue that merits a through scholarly inquiry.

Research Questions and Hypothesis

For the purpose of this study, the following research questions were addressed:

  1. Do the experiences of young blacks with the public in general vs. the same experiences of young whites create different levels of mental distress in the parents of both categories, respectively?
  2. Do the experiences of young blacks with law enforcement specifically vs. the same experiences of young whites create different levels of mental distress in the parents of both categories, respectively?
  3. Does having a young black male child increases the level of mental distress in parents as compared to having a white or black female child?

As a part of this study, the investigation included one research hypothesis:

The negative encounters with the public, in general, and law enforcement, specifically, tend to affect young black males more disproportionally than white males. This effect produces a higher level of mental distress in the parents of young black males as opposed to those of young white males, as the parents of the first category fear for the lives of their family members more.

Participants

The targeted participants for this study will be the parents of young black and white children from across the United States. The geographical scope of the research is chosen in order to evaluate a national-scope issue as well as establish regional variations, should there be any. The targeted participants will include the parents, whose children are old enough to participate in social interactions that may or may not involve racial matters regularly, but not old enough to live separately from their parents. For the purpose of this study, this means that the participants should have either black or white children from 6 to 16 years old. There will be no target number of participants.

The participants will be recruited through mass e-mails inviting participation, information distributed through professional organizations (professional psychology, higher education), and church groups. Participants will also be encouraged to share the survey link with their acquaintances fitting the design of the study. Participants will be ensured of their complete anonymity for general ethical reasons as well as because of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) race-gender schema.

SBW promotes self-reliance as a response to psychological stressors and cautions against seeking outside help (Watson & Hunter, 2015). As a consequence, sharing psychological experiences with an outsider may be seen as a wrong choice, and proper anonymity will likely be especially crucial in attracting some black mothers to participate in the study.

Regardless of a specific initial recruitment material, potential participants will receive a link to a web-page on the study site containing the general information about police brutality as a social issue, as well as the terms and the intent of the study. The information will not be race-specific to avoid influencing the participants’ answers should they choose to take part in the study. After acquainting themselves with the general information, the participants will have a choice of completing the online consent form. Upon signing the form, the participants will be asked to share demographic information, such as their age, gender, ethnicity, level of income, and residence, as well as the age, gender, and ethnicity of their children.

Procedures

Participants will be expected to remain in the study in the course of three months, counting from the date of the enrollment. New enrollments will continue for three months after the beginning of the study and end with the beginning of the fourth month so that the researcher would be able to conduct the entire study and quantify the results and in six months.

Participants will have to access and fill a total of four online surveys containing questions regarding the topic of the study: one immediately after the enrollment and one at the end of each month of participation. Filling four surveys in the course of three months rather than a single survey on one occasion will serve to eliminate or mitigate potential discrepancies and anomalies in the case of each given participant. The study will not involve personal face to face interactions between the researcher and the participants. All data obtained in the course of the study will be recorded, compiled, and stored electronically to allow swift and efficient processing.

Instrumentation

The study will use quantitative methods to answer the research questions. The primary instrumentation of this study will be online surveys designed by the researcher. These will contain both yes or no questions and open-ended questions. The questions will serve to establish the participant’s perception of how the everyday realities of life in the United States affect their children’s safety. They will also help to indicate whether the parents are aware of and assign particular importance to police brutality and whether they perceive it as a threat to their children’s well-being. Finally, the questions will also serve to establish the level of mental distress experienced by the parents both by their subjective criteria of psychological well-being and the objective criteria, such as the number of admissions with one or more symptoms of mental distress during the curse of the study as reported by the participants.

Variables

Independent Variables

The independent variables of this study will include:

  1. Race of the child or children of the participants
  2. Gender of the child or children of the participants
  3. Income level of the participants
Dependent Variables

The dependent variables of this study will include:

  1. Percentage of the parents who feel their children are threatened in their everyday interactions with the public in general
  2. Percentage of the parents who feel their children are under threat of becoming a victim of police brutality
  3. Percentage of the parents who report one or more psychological symptoms of mental distress
  4. Percentage of admissions with one or more psychological symptoms of mental distress
  5. Number of admissions with one or more psychological symptoms of mental distress, per parent

Data Analysis

As mentioned above, all data obtained in the course of the six months if the study will be recorded, compiled, and stored electronically. Independent variable 1 and dependent variables 1, 3, 4, and 5 will serve to establish a correlation or lack thereof between the race of the child, the perceived level of threat from everyday interactions with the public in general, and the level of mental distress, thus answering research question 1.

Independent variable 1 and dependent variables from 2 to 5 will serve to establish a correlation or lack thereof between the race of the child, the perceived level of threat from police brutality, and the level of mental distress, thus answering research question 2. Independent variable 2 and dependent variables from 1 to 5 will serve to evaluate the level of mental distress among the parents of young black makes as opposed to young black females or young whites, thus answering research question 3. Independent variable 3 will serve to account for economic differences as a possible cause behind the reported number of admissions.

Limitations to the Study

A significant limitation of this study will be the subjectivity of the estimated level of mental distress, as it will mainly rely on the participants’ own interpretation of their symptoms. However, CRT stresses the necessity of representing the perspective of a subordinated or discriminated racial group, subjective as it is, meaning this limitation is inherent in the adopted theoretical approach (Howard and Navarro, 2016). Apart from that, the study may not account for race-gender schemas, such as the SBW, which may make particular groups, such as black mothers, less likely to report on their psychological well-being (Watson & Hunter, 2015). The researcher should be aware of these limitations when conducting data analysis, evaluating results, and making conclusions.

References

Alang, S., McAlpine, D., McCreedy, E., & Hardeman, R. (2017). Police brutality and black health: Setting the agenda for public health scholars. American Journal of Public Health, 107(5), 662–665.

Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. C. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: A population-based, quasi-experimental study. The Lancet, 392(10144), 302-310.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York, NY: New York UP.

Garney, N. (2016). All lives matter, but so does race: Black Lives Matter and the evolving role of social media. Humanity & Society, 40(2), 1-20.

Howard, T. C., & Navarro, O. (2016). Critical race theory 20 years later: Where do we go from here? Urban Education, 51(3), 1-21.

Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2019, by race. Web.

Sackett, C. R. & Dogan, J. N. (2019). An exploration of black teens’ experiences of their own racial identity through photovoice: Implications for counselors. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 147(3), 172-189.

Thomas, M. J., & Blackmon, S. M. (2015). The influence of the Trayvon Martin shooting on racial socialization practices of African American parents. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(1), 75-89.

Tisley, M. L., Schiele, J. H., Adams, C., & Okilwa, N. S. (2018). Trayvon Martin: Racial profiling, black male stigma, and social work practice. Social Work, 63(1), 37-46.

Tregle, B., Nix, J., & Alpert, G. P. Disparity does not mean bias: Making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks. Journal of Crime and Justice, 42(1), 18-31.

Washington, A. R., & Henfield, M. S. (2019). What do the AMCD multicultural and social justice counseling competencies mean in the context of Black Lives Matter? Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 147(3), 148-160.

Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2015). Anxiety and depression among African American women: The costs of strength and negative attitudes toward psychological help-seeking. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 21(4), 604-612.

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