Natural mentors can buffer the effects of racial discrimination on African American youth


Editor’s Note: . This study suggests that both parents and mentors can play an important role in attenuating some of the negative effects and keeping young people focused on school. 

Cooper, M. S., Brown, C., Metzger, I., Clinton, Y., & Guthrie, B., (2022). Racial discrimination and African American adolescent’s adjustment: Gender variation in family and community social support, promotive and protective factors. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 22, 15-29.  doi: 10.1007/s10826-012-9608-y

Introduction: Research has demonstrated the detrimental impact of racial discrimination on African American youth.  Studies have shown an inverse relationship between racial discrimination and youth’s academic engagement (Chavous et al. 2008; Dotterer et al. 2009; Smalls et al. 2007).There is some indication, however, that supportive parents and neighborhoods can promote positive adjustment and reduce African American youth’s stress associated with experiencing racial discrimination. Although research has demonstrated that racial discrimination is experienced differently by African American males vs. females, few studies have examined how families and communities differentially buffer this stress.

In this study, researchers examined the  protective roles of family and community-specific social support  in the experience of racial discrimination experiences of African American youth.  The study focused on gender variation in the protective role of family and mentor social support. Researchers hypothesized that family support and religiosity will be more protective for African American girls while mentor social support would be a particularly protective factor for African American boys.

Method: A secondary data was utilized from a school- based teenage pregnancy prevention program in the Mid-Western region of the United States. The current study included a total of 4,256 African American youth between the ages of 12-18 and 59% of the youth were female. The study assessed the racial discrimination that youth perceived and experienced daily in regards to more subtle unfair treatment specifically:

  • being treated with less courtesy than others,
  • people acting as if they are not smart
  • others being afraid of them
  • being called names or insulted.

The study also assessed family factors, specifically how close the youth felt to their mother and father figures ,and community factors, specifically community mentor availability and the mentor’s affiliation with the youth. Many areas of adolescent adjustment were assessed, including: depressive symptoms (i.e., feelings of distress, if they were effortful in their actions, or if they feel like crying), school behavioral problems (i.e., academic conduct and behavioral problems of suspension), and school engagement (i.e., importance of getting good grades and being at the top of their academic class).


Racial Discrimination & Adolescent Adjustments:

  • For both African American male and female adolescents, racial discrimination was associated with greater depressive symptoms and number of school suspensions.
  • No association between adolescents’ perceptions of racial discrimination and their social engagement was found.

Gender Variation in the Promotive Role of Family & Community Support:

  • Maternal/ paternal closeness and support were associated with girls’ adjustment. In addition, father-adolescent closeness was related to less psychological distress among African American girls.
  • Mentor presence for girls moderate the association between racial discrimination and school suspensions.
  • Maternal support was related to fewer depressive symptoms and greater school engagement in boys
  • Greater mentor support was associated with more positive psychological adjustment, specially fewer depressive symptoms among African American boys.
  • For boys not reporting mentors presence in their lives, racial discrimination was related to greater school behavioral problems and lower school engagement
  • Social support sources can partially buffer the negative association between racial discrimination and school adjustment.

Implications: Overall, the findings are consistent with previous research; racial discrimination was associated with negative adjustment among African American adolescents. These findings suggest that these associations are best understood under a gendered approach, with indications that protective factors vary for African American boys and girls. The experience of racial discrimination varies for African American males and females. Regardless of the variation of racial discrimination experiences, there were significant findings that suggest that mentor presence for girls moderate the association between racial discrimination and school suspensions. Also for boys that reported having a mentor, racial discrimination was associated with fewer school suspensions and greater school engagement.

The findings suggest that family and community supports may promote positive adjustment. Further, while racial discrimination may be stressful for African American adolescents and lead to negative adjustments, the examined social support factors can partially buffer this association. This suggests the importance of familial and community engagement for the cultivation of the African American adolescent adjustment. The findings suggest that mentoring relationships can buffer the effects of racial discrimination amongst African American youth.