My husband and I like to think that we’ve done, or have a plan to do, nearly everything in our power to set up our African American son for a lifetime of success. We’ve overcome racial disparities in homeownership to purchase a house, which is important in building wealth. We fight hard to resolve our issues so he can grow up in a two-parent home, which has financial and emotional benefits for children. And we are doing our best to encourage his intellectual curiosity.
But a recent study that showed that even wealthy black boys are unable to maintain their parents’ hard-won economic security filled me with despair. It wasn’t so much that I was surprised to see evidence of the long-term manifestations of racism. Instead, I was upset by the idea that, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I might not be able to protect my son from its effects.
The findings of the study, “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective,” indicate that even if a boy is raised by upwardly mobile parents, he basically starts from zero at adulthood. To come to that conclusion, the study’s authors — a team of economists and researchers from Harvard, Stanford and the Census Bureau — traced the lives of 20 million children born between 1978 and 1983. They found that, “black boys have lower incomes in adulthood than white boys in 99 percent of Census tracts.” And the gap persisted “even among boys growing up in families with comparable incomes in the same neighborhood.”
These conclusions debunk the age-old belief that class, not race, is the source of the issues that plague people of color. The fact that upward mobility doesn’t provide an impenetrable dome that protects black males from racism isn’t exactly news to the black community. (Think back to headlines like Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates being suspected of breaking into his own home, or Forest Whitaker being accused of shoplifting.) It’s also hardly unexpected that research by Ohio State University Associate Professor Cynthia Colen illustrates that middle-class and higher black Americans as well as Hispanic Americans, often have worse health outcomes than white Americans, likely due to prolonged exposure to racism.
With so many factors beyond our control, what, I wondered, can parents of black children do to protect our sons? We can’t eradicate racial bias, but, after reading the study’s conclusion and talking with mental health professionals, I see hope. Here are some steps that experts say parents of black sons can take:
Seek positive role models
Amber Hewitt, a licensed psychologist in Washington, said providing black children with an appreciation and understanding of what it means to be black in America helps buffer the harmful effects of societal racism. “Black parents who provide their children with messages about cultural pride report less psychological distress for their children,” says Hewitt. While her practice has included research and clinical expertise in identity development, resilience, and racial socialization of black boys and young men, she emphasizes that black girls should not be overlooked when discussing sociocultural obstacles. “It is true that there are differences in how black boys and black girls experience the world and how society perceives and treats them,” she says. “However, I think we should be more inclusive when discussing experiences of black youth since there is a shared group experience.”
Of course, identity development can be a lot more difficult to achieve when you have limited access to positive examples of individuals from similar backgrounds, or you are mostly exposed to the negative depictions that black boys and girls are shown of themselves in movies, TV and pop culture. “The portrayal of black boys and girls in mainstream media is often one that invalidates their experiences. For example, the presence of stereotypical roles and images (e.g., angry black woman, criminal, athlete, entertainer) found in many commercials, television shows, news programs, and other forms of media is a contextual factor that impacts positive identity development,” Hewitt says. In addition to exposure to positive role models, Hewitt believes that mentorship can provide an alternative to the narrow media examples that are shown to black youths.
Provide access to black fathers
The “Race and Economic Opportunity Study” found that black boys whose fathers are present have better outcomes, and we know that having a father in the household can be a tool for identity development. However, that variable can be more difficult to control for. Thankfully, the study added that for boys without a father in the home, living in a neighborhood with present black fathers and being mentored by other black men provides a good substitute.
Erlanger Turner, assistant professor at the University of Houston-Downtown and faculty affiliate with its Center for Critical Race Studies, agrees. “In my experience, black males that have black male mentors are more confident and self-assured when they can see themselves in certain careers. If you know someone who has achieved what you want to pursue it gives them more hope.”
Hewitt believes mentorship can also build emotional strength. “Mentoring can help develop resilience. The contemporary view of resilience emphasizes the relationship between the individual and their environment and how individuals navigate systems to acquire the resources needed to overcome adversity,” she says. “This approach underscores the importance of self-definition and self-agency. In other words, it is important for black youth to be able to define themselves positively despite an environment that is not affirming of their identity.”
Seek out a diverse neighborhood
It’s important for parents of black children to be mindful of the environment they raise their children in, if they have the option. According to the researchers, growing up in a diverse neighborhood with low racial bias produced black boys who do better in school and in life. Residing in affluent neighborhoods often comes with its own challenges and isn’t necessarily the best environment to raise a black child. “Living in a so-called affluent area does not mean that the child will be protected from racial bias. It could be that the child experiences more bias and discrimination in more subtle, covert ways like microaggressions,” explains Hewitt.
Turner also points out that putting our children in areas where they are the only child of color can affect their sense of accomplishment later in life. “One potential consequence is experiencing what is referred to as the impostor phenomenon — the inability to internalize success or feeling like you’re not deserving of success. Studies have shown that impostor feelings are associated with risk of depression and anxiety.”
After reading the study and talking to Hewitt and Turner, I have mixed feelings about the results. I’d especially like to know which of these buffers yields the most benefits for black children — the researchers aren’t sure. Like most black parents, my husband and I can’t control for everything. We’re a military family currently living in an overwhelmingly conservative and white town, and we regularly see a truck with a large Confederate flag near our neighborhood. Racial bias is inescapable. At the same time, my husband and I serve as alternative images of blackness, when compared to media portrayals. We plan to continue doing what is best for our son and hope what we accomplish makes up for what was out of our reach. But the most important thing we can do is love him.