A new study conducted by Ming-Te Wang and James P. Huguley of the University of Pittsburg and Harvard University respectively, found that “racial socialization”— teaching and involving kids in activities that promote racial pride —helps to offset the discrimination and racial prejudices children face by the outside world.
And, it’s not just relevant for young children in school. Teens and adolescents, including those who’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system, can also benefit from such an approach.
This new research by Wang and Huguley confirms research that I’ve conducted at Rikers Island over the last 15 years. I found that a focus on “racial pride” – teaching about historical antecedents to contemporary movements like #Black Lives Matter – offers a powerful shield against the discriminatory policies that result in the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies.
One of the key ways to help Black and Latino young men thrive is through racial pride. Focusing on racial pride may sound counterintuitive in a world in which a majority of young people in a recent poll said they thought their generation was “post-racial.” But my research with young men leaving jail and returning home suggests just the opposite. Embracing racial and ethnic pride can help these protect themselves in ways that really matter.
What I, and a team of colleagues, offered through our study was a 30-hour educational program that served as a bridge between the young men’s time in jail and their return home. The eight sessions in the program focused on a range of topics, including the political economy of the drug war, gender and sexual relationships, and a session on racial and ethnic pride called, “My people, my pride/ Mi gente, mi orgulla.” Half of the 552 people in the 5-year study participated in the educational program, and the other half got the usual discharge plan from jail. The focus on these young men, in particular, was driven by the complex intersections of masculinity, race, criminal justice status, and health.
The idea for an intersectional approach to this work came from previous research with young African American women. Researchers Gina Wingood and Ralph DiClemente (Emory University) began doing similar work with young African American girls. In workshops designed to reduce their risk of HIV/STDs, instead of focusing exclusively on the biology of disease transmission, they included material on black feminist heroines, like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. Their results were promising. They found a significant drop in risk for young girls who participated in the workshops versus those who did not. And, they made a compelling case for interventions that explicitly took gender and power into account. We wanted to replicate their work with young men who had been unlucky enough to land in jail at Rikers Island.
Our results were similar. When we followed up with the young men in our study a year later, we found that those who had participated in the educational program spent fewer days in jail compared with those who didn’t. We also found that they had fewer problems with drug dependence. When the young men had higher levels of racial pride at the time of their incarceration, they were significantly less likely to be reincarcerated or be engaged in illegal activities even up to one year after release from jail compared to men with lower levels of racial pride. The same young men were less likely to endorse violence to resolve conflict.
Other research with young people who haven’t been caught up in the legal system confirms the importance of racial pride as a protective factor against discrimination. Survey research of 630 mixed-gender adolescents from middle class backgrounds in 2013 by Ming-Te Wang (University of Pittsburgh) and James P. Huguley (Harvard University) found racial pride to be the single most important factor in guarding against racial discrimination, and discovered it had a direct impact on the students’ grades, future goals, and cognitive engagement.
While we know that racial pride can be transformative, we also recognize its limitations. Racial pride is still no guarantee against death at the hands of the state or others, and the young men we worked with know this. When we piloted the workshop on ethnic pride, we showed the men photographs of civil rights leaders – Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King – and asked the young men what they thought when they saw these images. One telling response to the images: “These guys are cool, but they’re all dead.” This observation aside, most of the young men we encountered in jail had heard little in their traditional educational programs about what might make them proud of being African American or Latino, outside of limited “Black History Month” or “Hispanic Heritage” events. The young people we’ve met in jail are eager to learn about their history and taking pride in it made a difference for their lives.
It has been heartening, against a backdrop of police-perpetrated racialized violence in the U.S. and the current election cycle, to watch young people take to the streets and convention floors to demand change. We know that racial pride can be a source of strength and resilience, and it’s certainly part of what is driving current social movements. The true test will be whether US society can tolerate such resilience.
~ Megha Ramaswamy is Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at University of Kansas School of Medicine. Dr. Ramaswamy’s current work addresses the social context of sexual health risk among incarcerated women and is funded by the National Institutes of Health (National Cancer Institute) and American Cancer Society. The work described in this post was also funded by the National Institutes of Health (National Institute on Drug Abuse).