African-American Children

views updated


African-American children are individuals under the age of eighteen who include among their ancestors individuals who were forcibly brought from African countries to the Americas as slaves beginning in the early 1600s. In 1998, of the 69.9 million children in the United States, 15 percent were African American. Although the majority of poor children in the United States are of European ancestry, annual rates of poverty among African-American children typically are two to three times that of non-Latino European-American children. In 1997, for example, 37 percent of African-American children lived in families with incomes below the official poverty threshold, compared to 15 percent of European-American children. African-American children also are far more likely than non-Hispanic European-American children to experience long-term poverty. Poverty among non-Hispanic European-American children is primarily a transitory phenomenon. An analysis that focused on children who were between birth and five years of age in 1982 tracked these children over a ten-year period (1982-1991). Although 41 percent of the African-American children never experienced poverty during this period, 43 percent were poor for at least three of the ten years, 28 percent were poor for six or more years, and 17 percent were poor for at least nine years. The comparable figures for non-African-American children were 79 percent, 9 percent, 3 percent, and 1 percent, respectively (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1999). These racial disparities are alarming because it is well established that experiencing poverty year after year has more detrimental effects on cognitive development, school achievement, and socioemotional functioning than experiencing poverty occasionally (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997).

Equally as striking are racial differences in net financial assets (readily liquid sources of wealth that can be used for a family's immediate needs and desires such as savings accounts, stocks, and bonds) within households at similar income levels. In the late 1980s, African Americans in high-income households (over $50,000) possessed only 23 cents of median net financial assets for every dollar of assets held by European Americans. African-American children are further disadvantaged because they are more likely to live in poor, isolated urban ghettos than European Americans of similar economic status. On average, these communities have fewer social, educational, and occupational resources that enhance children's development (e.g., high quality child care), and in many cases are plagued by high rates of crime and violence related to gang- and drug-related activities. Even when African Americans escape poverty at the family level, they have a 50 percent chance of encountering it in their neighborhoods. The social, educational, and economic resources of neighborhoods can influence children in a multitude of developmental areas. For example, children who grow up in affluent neighborhoods or neighborhoods with a higher percentage of affluent families have higher cognitive functioning, complete more years of school, and have lower school dropout rates than children from economically similar families who grow up in poor neighborhoods or neighborhoods with proportionately fewer affluent families.

Family Structure

In 1998, 51 percent of African-American children lived in mother-only families, compared to 18 percent of European-American children. Two primary events result in female-headed households, namely, births to unmarried women and marital dissolution, and both are more common among African Americans than European Americans. This is partly a consequence of the unfavorable economic status of African-American men relative to European-American men, which reduces their eligibility as desirable mates. African-American men who are stably employed have higher marriage rates and lower rates of divorce and separation than those who are unemployed or have only minimal or unstable attachment to the labor force. Employment factors, however, represent only one set of factors that influence rates of marriage, divorce, and separation among African Americans. Following divorce and separation, African-American children are more likely to fall into poverty than are European-American children because they were less well-off to begin with. In addition, African-American children spend more time than European-American children in a mother-headed family before making the transition to a two-parent family and are far more likely than European-American children to remain in a mother-headed family for the duration of childhood. All of these factors contribute to race differences in long-term childhood poverty.

Nevertheless, the difference in family structure is not the sole factor responsible for the increased prevalence of poverty among African-American children. The expected prevalence of poverty among African-American children living in two-parent families throughout childhood is roughly the same as the expected prevalence among European-American children who spend their entire childhood living in single-parent families. These race differences are fundamentally rooted in structural forces—traceable to longstanding racial discrimination in employment, education, mortgage lending, and housing—that have produced layers of accumulated disadvantages. Racial discrimination is not only individual-level behavior based on negative racial prejudice. It is also a "system of advantage based on race" sustained by institutional practices and policies. It also encompasses behavior intended to maintain racial advantage even though actors may not overtly embrace prejudicial thinking (Tatum 1997).

Academic, Cognitive, and Physical Well-Being

At all levels of family income, African-American children receive lower scores on subtests of IQ tests and on reading and writing achievement tests than European-American children. Several factors contribute to these differences, including cultural bias in IQ tests and differences in school quality, teacher expectancy, the home learning environment, and economic resources not reflected in current income. Racial disparity in children's early physical health status also may be a factor. African-American children, compared to European-American children, have higher rates of iron deficiency anemia, elevated blood lead, and low birthweight (less than or equal to 2,500 grams (5 pounds, 8 ounces) at birth). Racial disparities in anemia and elevated blood lead exist at all income levels but are especially significant among children who are poor.

The adverse effects of these physical health conditions on children's development are well documented. Iron-deficiency anemia in infancy adversely affects brain development partly by affecting the neurotransmitter function and myelin formation; it is consistently associated with poorer scores on cognitive and motor functioning. Children with elevated blood lead levels, compared to those with lower lead burdens, have slightly decreased scores on measures of intelligence, poorer school performance and achievement test scores, shorter attention spans, and increased impulsiveness. Although the vast majority of low birthweight children have normal outcomes, as a group they have more problems in cognition, attention, and neuromotor functioning during middle childhood and adolescence.

Elevated levels of lead in the blood is more prevalent among African-American children because poverty and housing discrimination have relegated African-American families in disproportionate numbers to poor, older, urban neighborhoods. Housing units in these neighborhoods often contain deteriorating lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust. In addition, these neighborhoods tend to be near industrial areas, which increases exposure to lead gasoline. It remains a puzzle why low birthweight births are more common among African Americans than among any other ethnic group, regardless of the mother's educational level (an indicator of socioeconomic status). Higher teen pregnancy rates among African Americans do not explain this race differential and genetic hypotheses have been discounted (McLoyd and Lozoff 2001).

Socioemotional Well-Being

The self-esteem of African-American children and adolescents is reported to be equal to and often-times higher than that of European-American children and adolescents. During the grade school years, African-American children, compared to European-American children, report more positive attitudes about school and homework, perceive themselves to be more competent in reading and mathematics, hold higher expectations about their future performance in reading and mathematics courses, and are more optimistic that they will attend college. These differential expectations are at odds with racial differences in children's actual performance on school achievement tests and national statistics on rates of high school completion and college attendance, suggesting perhaps that some African-American children do not receive or have not incorporated feedback about their performance in school. These findings also raise questions about why young African-American children's greater fondness for school and higher educational expectations do not translate into higher levels of academic performance and educational attainment. Notwithstanding comparatively high educational expectations, as early as second grade, African-American boys residing in inner city neighborhoods have lower occupational aspirations and expectations than middle class European-American boys, with the gap between aspirations and expectations being larger for the inner-city boys than the other boys. Both groups of boys become more realistic about occupational aspirations and expectations the older they are. For example, the percentage who aspire and expect to be professional athletes decreases with age.

Evidence concerning race differences in rates of depression is mixed, with some studies reporting higher rates among African Americans, others reporting higher rates among European Americans, and still others reporting no racial differences. African-American adolescents, however, have long had substantially lower suicide rates than European-American adolescents. It is thought that suicidal behavior is inhibited among African Americans by extended social support networks that serve as buffers against stressors and by cultural values that proscribe suicide. The racial gap in the adolescent suicide rate has narrowed in recent years, especially among males. Scholars have speculated that the increases in suicide among African-American adolescents are due to African Americans' rise to middle class status and its attendant splintering of community and family support networks, weakening of bonds to religion, and psychological distress resulting from efforts to compete in historically European-American-dominated social circles. Others have suggested that with greater assimilation and contact with European Americans, African-American adolescents increasingly adopt or model European-American adolescents' strategies for coping with depression and other forms of psychological distress. None of these hypotheses has been adequately tested.

African-American male adolescents are more likely than their European-American counterparts to be labeled conduct disordered or antisocial; to be disciplined, suspended, or expelled from junior high and high school; and to be arrested and incarcerated. Some of these differences appear to reflect racial bias resulting in more harsh treatment of African-American adolescents for comparable offenses. Generally, studies of self-reported delinquency find no race differences. For several decades, however, the rate of death from homicide has been higher for African-American male adolescents than European-American adolescents. In annual national surveys conducted since the early 1980s, African-American adolescents, compared to European-American and Hispanic adolescents, consistently reported the lowest level of marijuana use, the lowest prevalence of alcohol use and binge drinking, and the lowest level of cigarette smoking. School-based surveys probably underestimate drug use by African-American and Hispanic youth because of higher dropout rates among these two groups, compared to European-American youth. Nevertheless, this does not fully account for the racial and ethnic disparities. There is some support for the claim that African-American adolescents are less likely to use drugs because they have less exposure to peer and adult drug users and are more religious.

Sources of Strength and Buffers of Race-Related Stressors

Religion and Church Membership

Religion has been theorized to be an adaptive coping mechanism that has enabled African Americans to transcend the limitations and harshness of their social realities and to give meaning and direction to their individual and collective existence. During the 1980s, nearly 70 percent of African Americans reported themselves to be members of a church. Churches provide informal support (e.g., friendship, companionship, advice and comfort, help during illness, financial assistance), formal services (e.g., meals on wheels, transportation, group outings and vacations, ministerial counseling), and moral guidance. Religiosity and church membership enhance self-esteem partly as a consequence of the perception that one is held in high regard by other believers and by an omnipotent divine other who makes his/her presence felt in one's life. Religiosity also buffers the negative psychological effects of stress. Having a mother who seeks spiritual support is one of several factors that distinguishes African-American children who are stress resilient from those who are stress impaired.

Extended Family Relations and Social Support Networks

African Americans are more likely to reside in extended family households than are European Americans. Extended families are close kin relations within and across generations whose members are intensely involved in the reciprocal exchange of goods, services, and ongoing emotional support. As such, they are problem-solving and stress-coping systems. Typically, involvement with extended family is beneficial to young children and adolescents, partly because of increased support, monitoring, and supervision. African-American adolescents whose single parent is involved in extended family activities report fewer problem behaviors.

African-American and Latino adolescent mothers who report higher levels of grandmother support have fewer psychological problems, more positive interactions with their babies, and higher levels of educational attainment. Nevertheless, the impact of grandmother involvement, especially when mother and grandmother are co-residing and/or coparenting, is not uniformly positive. Researchers do not yet have a good understanding of what circumstances render different types of support from grandmothers helpful versus detrimental or inert. In general, though, parents' support networks reduce emotional strain; lessen the tendency toward punitive, coercive, and inconsistent parenting; and in turn, foster socioemotional development in children.

Racial Socialization

Given the especially virulent and egregious discrimination that African Americans have historically faced and continue to experience, it is not surprising that African-American parents generally provide more extensive racial and ethnic socialization than other parents of color who have been studied. For example, African-American parents are more likely to report talking with their adolescent children about racial and ethnic prejudice as a problem and how to handle it than are Mexican-American parents, who, in turn, are more likely to talk about these issues than are Japanese-American parents.

African-American parents convey messages about children's cultural heritage and the importance of racial pride more frequently than messages about racial discrimination and how to cope with it. Messages intended to promote racial mistrust are a comparatively minor, if not rare, element of racial socialization among African-American parents. It is not yet clear whether racial socialization consistently influences African-American children's racial identity, school achievement, or ability to deal with racial stereotyping and discrimination. There is evidence from studies of African-American adults, however, that both racial socialization and group identity (i.e., feelings of closeness in ideas and affect to one's self-identified racial group; race-linked self-image) protect physical/mental health in the face of perceived racial discrimination and unfair treatment.

Responsive Discipline

Urban African-American and European-American parents modify their strategies for managing their children's lives and behavior in accordance with the risks and opportunities afforded by neighborhood conditions (e.g., resources, level of crime). This responsiveness has positive effects on children's development. For example, parenting characterized by a combination of restrictiveness, extensive rule setting, and warmth appears to be especially beneficial to the cognitive and socioemotional functioning of African-American children living in high-risk, crime-laden neighborhoods. This parenting style shields children from noxious elements and bestows them with a positive self-concept that helps deflect negative influences in their extrafamilial environment.

African Americans are more likely to view physical discipline short of abuse as an appropriate display of positive parenting than are European Americans. African-American mothers consistently report higher frequencies of spanking than European-American mothers, even when socioeconomic status is taken into account (McLoyd, Cauce, Takeuchi, and Wilson 2000). Cultural variation in the acceptability, meaning, and parental attributes associated with spanking also may be the reason that parents' use of physical discipline predicts higher levels of behavior problems among European-American children, but does not among African-American children. That is, because of its commonplaceness in African-American culture, spanking may coexist with high levels of warmth to a greater extent in African-American households than in European-American households. African-American parents also may be less likely to administer spanking in an impulsive or excessively harsh, punitive manner. There is some preliminary support for these claims, but more rigorous evaluation of them is needed. In any case, existing research underscores how critically important it is that parental strictness not be equated with punitiveness and a cold emotional style. The latter qualities are risk factors for behavioral problems in children as indicated by evidence that mothers of stress-resilient African-American children (those exposed to high stress burdens, but who show no clinically significant behavior problems) are less rejecting and aggressive than mothers of stress-impaired African-American children (those exposed to high stress burdens who show clinically significant behavior problems).



Duncan, Greg J., and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, eds. Consequences ofGrowing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 1997.

McLoyd, Vonnie C., A. M. Cauce, D. Takeuchi, and L. Wilson, "Marital Processes and Parental Socialization in Families of Color: A Decade Review of Research."Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (2000): 1070-1093.

McLoyd, Vonnie C., and Bo Lozoff. "Racial and Ethnic Trends inChildren's Behavior and Development." In Neil J. Smelser, William Julius Wilson, and Faith Mitchell eds., America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Trends in the Well-Being of America's Children and Youth. Washington, DC: Child Trends, 1999.

Vonnie C.McLoyd

Algea O.Harrison-Hale

About this article

African-American Children

Updated About content Print Article


African-American Children