Black Children and Adolescents Can Achieve Greater Heights With Research-informed Policies and Practices
By Mavis Sanders, Joy Thompson, Kristen Harper, Child Trends
Racial disparities in many indicators of child well-being (e.g., school suspension, suicide, exposure to violence, juvenile arrests) illustrate the need to improve Black children’s and adolescents’ experiences and outcomes across multiple domains, including education, health, child welfare, and criminal justice. However, to promote a deeper and more varied understanding of Black children and adolescents, this brief highlights their progress and accomplishments in addition to their continued needs. Our intention is not to minimize the serious consequences of racial injustice but rather to recognize young Black people’s achievements and resilience as we work to create the society that they, and all children and youth, deserve.
A large and diverse group, Black children and adolescents in the United States have:
- Substantially improved their levels of high school completion and college enrollment
- Achieved academic excellence beyond the classroom
- Increasingly postponed parenthood and reduced their likelihood of engaging in risky health behaviors
- Demonstrated strong civic engagement and led social change
- Broken new ground in athletics and the arts
- Demonstrated entrepreneurship and launched new business endeavors
This brief describes these trends in detail. It first provides demographic data on today’s Black children and youth, and then presents some recent accomplishments by young Black people in academics, health, social activism, extracurricular activities, and entrepreneurship. As we describe Black children’s and adolescents’ progress in these areas, we also discuss policies and practices that have expanded or diminished their opportunities and identify areas for further research that can drive the institutional and organizational change necessary for their well-being.
About the series
This brief is part of a larger effort by Child Trends researchers to expand knowledge about Black children and families. This effort includes continued work on Black family cultural assets and the development of a new multi-year applied research agenda on Black children and families. While sometimes prioritizing adults within Black families and sometimes prioritizing children, the goals of this effort are consistent—to build a deeper understanding of the diversity of Black families, contextualize their experiences within systems and institutions, and produce evidence to inform policies and practices that promote their well-being in the twenty-first century.
For this work, we define a Black family as a group of at least one self-identified Black adult related by birth, marriage, adoption, or choice to one or more children (infancy through adolescence). The adult(s) may also be residing with or economically, socially, and emotionally responsible for the child(ren)’s well-being.
Black children and adolescents in the United States are a large and diverse population.
Black children and adolescents1 in the United States—defined as those from birth through age 24—represent a heterogeneous population of nearly 15 million people, or approximately 36 percent of the country’s total Black population. In 2019, there were more male (51%) than female (49%) Black children and youth in the United States (see table), although this trend shifts after age 24. While more than two thirds of Black children under age 18 lived in households above the poverty threshold ($25,750 for a family of four), nearly one third lived in households at or below the poverty level. Black children make up approximately 15 percent of students enrolled in U.S. public schools, a decrease of 2 percent since 2008. There is also an increasing level of ethnic diversity among young Black people. In 2019, 63 percent of Black people identifying as “multiracial Black” or “Black Hispanic” (rather than “Black alone”) were age 22 or younger.
Black children and adolescents can boast of significant accomplishments.
Like the generations that preceded them, today’s Black children and adolescents are making significant strides in a variety of areas. The following sections lay out notable accomplishments by Black young people in academics, health, social activism, extracurricular activities, and entrepreneurship.
Black children and adolescents have substantially increased both high school completion and college enrollment.
Black children’s and families’ historical quest for equitable educational opportunities continues in the present day and includes tactics that range from school board advocacy to homeschooling. Although gaps persist in learning opportunities, Black students are making significant educational progress. For example, Black fourth grade students have made noticeable gains in reading and math over the last three decades and, despite the ongoing need for expanded access to advanced learning opportunities, Black student participation in Advanced Placement courses and related exams has also increased. Moreover, recent data have shown that the percentage of Black people with a high school diploma (88%) is on par with the national average (90%). Research and policy must continue to focus on educational equity to accelerate these gains and ensure that Black students are supported from early childhood education through high school completion, and that they graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary success.
Black high school diploma attainment is very similar to the national average
Mirroring preK-12 progress, college enrollment among Black students increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2018. Black students now account for about 15 percent of undergraduates ages 16 to 24 enrolled in U.S. colleges, a nearly 3 percentage point increase since 1995.
However, the gender gap in college attendance is especially pronounced among Black students: Female students represent about 62 percent of the Black college population, compared to 38 percent of Black college students who are male. Additionally, studies suggest that ethnicity and racial identity influence Black college students’ sense of campus connectedness. These findings emphasize the need for studies that examine how Black students’ intersectional identities influence their educational options, access, choices, and experiences. Further research is needed to inform policies and programs that promote college affordability and inclusive campus climates, which are integral to Black students’ degree attainment and future economic stability. Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which have substantially improved the economic and educational position of Black people in the United States, can make significant contributions to research, policy, and practice in this area.
Black children and adolescents are achieving academic excellence beyond the classroom.
Black children’s and adolescents’ learning and achievement extend beyond the classroom. For example, Zaila Avant-Garde, a Black American 14-year-old girl, earned the title of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, making Zaila the second Black child to hold this title (along with Jody-Anne Maxwell, a Black Jamaican student in 1998). Given historical efforts to prevent Black children from fully participating and advancing in the national spelling bee, this achievement is no small feat. Black youth are also making strides in debate. In 2021, Emani Stanton and Jayla Jackson made history as the first Black female duo to win Harvard University’s annual summer debate competition. Studies designed to understand how community initiatives like the Harvard Diversity Project, which recruits and trains Black youth to compete in the annual summer debate, can help promote the academic achievement and success of Black students in and beyond the classroom.
Black children and adolescents are postponing parenthood and reducing risky health behaviors.
Policies and practices can reverse the legacy of inadequate access to health information, resources, and services in Black communities. For example, government and organizational policies have expanded Black adolescents’ access to sexual health interventions in schools and in community-based organizations. Participation in such interventions is positively associated with Black adolescents’ knowledge about sexual health and confidence in making safe sexual decisions. Increased access to information about sexual health is one explanation for declining teen pregnancy rates among Black and other adolescents in the United States. Moving forward, it is important that researchers understand the factors that influence Black youth’s participation in sexual health interventions, including the ways in which religion, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of social identity affect both access and outcomes.
Alcohol consumption among U.S. adolescents is also declining, with Black teens reporting significantly lower levels of binge alcohol use and higher levels of alcohol abstention than other racial and ethnic groups. While limited, research suggests that Black family experiences—including parents’ norms against alcohol use, perceptions of alcohol use as harmful, and restrictions on children’s involvement in family alcohol use—may partially explain lower alcohol consumption among Black adolescents. This positive health trend is consistent among both U.S.-born and immigrant Black youth.
One concern, however, is that Black children and adolescents who do encounter problems with alcohol abuse have a high rate of alcohol-related problems and a high reported need to stop or reduce alcohol consumption, but also have low levels of sustained participation in treatment programs. Moreover, Black youth in justice system-involved residential placements (who have higher rates of substance abuse than Black adolescents in the general population) are more likely than their peers in other ethnic and racial groups to be in programs that do not offer any substance-related services. Further research—and especially studies that center the voices of diverse Black youth—is needed to understand mechanisms that influence Black young people’s decisions about alcohol use and to document their treatment options, access, experiences, and outcomes.
Black adolescents are demonstrating strong civic engagement and leading social change.
Black children and youth have played an essential role in promoting social change in the United States, including active participation in the Civil Rights movement. From leading school desegregation efforts to participating in the 1963 Children’s Crusade, Black children and youth have risked physical and psychological harm to move the United States closer to its democratic principles. Drawing on this history and their own experiences with racism, Black children and adolescents continue to spearhead efforts to promote racial and social justice in the United States. Today, Black adolescents are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to use social media as a vehicle to engage in activism and promote political awareness and participation among their peers. Black youth activism is expressed not only in national movements such as those sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis policeman, but also seen at a more local level, with Black youth—and particularly Black girls—speaking out against social injustice in their school communities.
Community organizations that support and guide Black youth activism have positive effects for participants. Benefits include increased self, social, and global awareness, and improved technical, interpersonal, and networking skills. Many Black parents encourage and serve as role models for their children’s activism; however, few studies have examined the effects of this support or studied which factors influence Black parents’ attitudes toward their children’s civic engagement. Nonetheless, Black youth activism continues to advance social justice in the United States. This activism is worthy of recognition and analysis to better understand how it contributes to organizational and institutional change and the factors that inspire, support, and sustain it.
Black children and adolescents are breaking new ground in athletics and the arts.
Black children and adolescents are breaking new ground in athletics and the arts, using both as avenues for creative self-expression, community pride, and future success. Recent Black achievements in swimming, baseball, and a national drawing contest serve as illustrations. Black adolescents like Simone Manuel—who at age 20 in 2016 became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal—are breaking barriers in aquatic sports despite a history of segregation at public pools and its related consequences in Black communities. Such achievements are in part made possible by policies and programs that promote access to swimming facilities and developmentally appropriate instruction in Black communities, and that address parents’ and children’s concerns about water safety. Funding to promote access to facilities and instruction has also resulted in achievements for Black children and adolescents in baseball. In 2018, for example, the Mamie Johnson Little League team, created in 2015, became the first all-Black team to win the Little League Washington, DC championship in the league’s 31-year history. Black children and adolescents are also being recognized for accomplishments in the visual arts. In August 2021, then 9-year-old Gabrielle Faisal won first place in the White House Historical Association’s National Student Art Competition in the kindergarten to third grade category by depicting her interpretation of the Black experience in the United States.
These noteworthy achievements, along with research showing the benefits of participation in sports and the arts on child and adolescent outcomes, underscore the importance of policies and programs that remove barriers to Black children’s and adolescents’ engagement in extracurricular activities. These barriers include a lack of access to sports facilities, both in and out of school, and declining public investment in arts education. Further research is needed to evaluate efforts to remove such barriers and to identify effective strategies that expand extracurricular opportunities for Black children and youth. Such studies can help illuminate ways to meet national education goals for students’ participation in extracurricular activities and expand Black children’s and adolescents’ exposure to and choices among these activities.
Black children and adolescents are demonstrating entrepreneurship and launching new businesses in multiple sectors.
Entrepreneurship among Black people in the United States is viewed as critical for addressing racial wealth inequities, promoting community development, and facilitating recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The value of Black entrepreneurship, however, is not just for adults—it also benefits Black children and adolescents across gender, socioeconomic background, and former carceral status. Black children’s and adolescents’ participation in entrepreneurial activities has been significant over the past five years. From music and snacks to lawn care and media publication, Black children and adolescents are engaged in businesses that showcase their ingenuity, self-efficacy, and work ethic. Kelsey Johnson, winner of the 2018 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and owner of Kinky Kaps, LLC, demonstrates how programs that support entrepreneurship can benefit children and youth. One such program, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, provided Kelsey—who was unsure of her next steps after graduating from high school—with the knowledge, skills, and support she needed to launch her business and ignite her hope for the future.
Poll data show that Black youth exhibit greater interest in entrepreneurship than youth from other racial and ethnic groups. To build on this interest and accelerate the growth of Black-owned businesses—which currently comprise about 3.5 percent of all businesses in the United States—researchers can identify ways to address the racialized barriers to entrepreneurship that stifle Black business development.2 In so doing, this research can help clear the way for Black children’s and adolescents’ entrepreneurial success.
There are nearly 15 million Black children and adolescents in the United States. The impact of racism on their development and life course is significant and well documented. This brief has noted some of the systemic challenges in education, health, child welfare, and criminal justice that have diminished Black children and adolescents’ well-being. However, we have also highlighted the agency of Black children and adolescents and their achievements—often obscured in research and media—that become possible when Black young people are provided opportunities to thrive.
Moving forward, an applied research agenda on Black children and families can produce the type of research that is needed to create and reinforce the conditions for their success. This research can amplify Black children’s and adolescents’ voices—and those of their families—in policy and practice. It can also identify scalable programs that extend Black children’s and adolescents’ access to equitable resources, high-quality services and experiences, and fair and just outcomes—all of which are essential elements for their well-being and continuing progress.
To access the resource, please click here.