The world is an uneven playing field, especially for African Americans. Many problems undermine their human rights; voter ID laws, underfunded education and excessive policing are some examples. However, those issues can be solved with public policy. What cannot be undone is the steep psychological damage of overt and subtle racism. When raised in an impoverished environment, black youth internalize the stigma.
We could go back to the 1940s for this point, when psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted the “Doll Test.” In that experiment, they gave white and black children two dolls, the only differences being skin color and hair color.
The “Doll Test” revealed that black children felt they were inferior to whites, due to society acting on that belief through segregation. They called themselves “n*****s” and attributed positive traits to the white dolls.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the psychological trauma in Brown v. Board Education: “To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Fifty-five years later, a CNN report found that white and black children preferred those with lighter skin. Wait a minute, you may ask, how could black kids still believe that after a black president was elected? The core of the problem is the societal perception of black people that has persisted since Jim Crow.
Affirmative action for college and work, while well-meaning, fails to address the root of the problem, which begins in elementary school. De facto segregation still exists in many parts of the country, where communities of color tend to be poorer.
Public schools are primarily funded through property taxes, so those in communities of color receive disproportionately less money than affluent, typically white communities. This translates into less support and worse outcomes for minority students.
Researcher Eric Hanushek estimates that it will take “two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes,” according to U.S. News and World Report.
By the time black students apply for college, an inferiority complex will have developed in them. After college, African-Americans still have to combat hiring discrimination; job applicants with “black-sounding” names are 50 percent less likely to get an interview callback than those with “white-sounding” names.
Unequal conditions prevent black students from achieving a higher socioeconomic status and perpetuate the falsehood that black people are incapable of self-improvement. Even some who do not mean to offend still associate behavior with racial binaries: You act “white” if you care about school, speak properly, and dress nicely, and you act “black” if you care about rap music, frequently use slang, and do drugs.
I can attest to such ignorance. In eighth grade, I was sitting with my friends during lunch when one of my friends, Hannah, felt prompted to say that I was the “whitest girl at the table.” I squirmed. I looked to rest of the group and saw them nodding in agreement.
Hannah then gave a list of reasons for my “whiteness:” fashion sense, grades, Starbucks parody for my Instagram profile. I said nothing. I knew my friends were not trying to being malicious, but their insensitivity still hurt. Worst of all, they were unaware of their ignorance.
That scenario is an example of how base assumptions affect our daily interactions. It is difficult for me to visualize how such misconceptions affect those less privileged than me; I have heard horror stories of guidance counselors telling black students to lower their expectations when applying to colleges and encouraging them to take easier classes.
Up until eighth grade, I never actively considered how my race affected the way others viewed me. Now I constantly remind myself that I do not fit the media’s perception of the “ghetto black teenager.”
The pressure is even greater for students in an inequitable environment. Northwestern University found stress from racial anxiety and perceived discrimination by teachers “related to lower grades, less academic motivation … and less persistence when encountering an academic challenge,” The Atlantic reported.
Prejudice is still detrimental to those who do overcome racial/socioeconomic obstacles because whenever members of the black population do succeed, like Michelle Obama or Oprah, they are treated as the exceptions, as if they are the only African Americans who can be intelligent. That is simply not the case.
A Rice University study found that African Americans are the group most likely to value college. A survey by The Kaiser Family Foundation showed that black men are most worried about “having enough money to pay [their] bills” and “providing a good education to [their] children” on their list of priorities. So whenever someone implies that “black people don’t care about school,” we must show them all the facts countering that.
Just as we created the Black Lives Matter Movement to combat police brutality, we need more campaigns to debunk stereotypes. Through social media, subliminal messaging, and storytelling in the vein of the #MeToo phenomenon, a cultural awakening could push legislators and business leaders to address institutionalized racism.
The signs of solidarity within the campaign would also alleviate the isolation and mental burden felt by black youth. If we fail, younger African-Americans will struggle to fend off ignorance and will be left asking themselves this: if I am expected to fail, how can I ever hope to succeed? If we want later generations to reach their full potential, we need to change their guiding narrative to one that recognizes their right to a good quality of life.