Growing Up Amid the Rise of Racism

Introduction by series curators William Lopez, faculty director of public scholarship at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and assistant clinical professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, and Tabby Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID), associate vice president for research, and a professor of education and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

Racist ideologies have long been part of American history, forming the basis of systemic practices such as institutionalized slavery, segregation, child separation into boarding schools, mass incarceration, anti-immigrant policies and practices, as well as discriminatory interpersonal treatments, such as racialized microaggressions and bias. The current sociopolitical climate has also stimulated an increase in overt expressions of racism and acts of purposeful marginalization and disenfranchisement. Events such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville brought together and renewed inspiration to groups that openly espoused white supremacy. Even after counter-protester Heather Heyer was struck by a car and killed by an alt-right Neo-Nazi protester, President Trump claimed that there were “very fine people, on both sides,” equating those who marched for white supremacy with those who opposed it. Meanwhile, those who marched in Ferguson in protest of the killing of Michael Brown were framed as terrorists and met with tear gas and police batons.

Researchers highlight how this emergent sociopolitical environment can be a significant source of stress for children and young adults, challenging their well-being as well as their developing understandings of who they are. Many youth of color are able to develop proud, healthy identities as members of the very communities targeted by renewed and aggressive racist discourse and acts, while others may experience identity struggles within such environments. In many non-people of color communities, families, often for the first time, grapple with discomfort in naming and engaging race and racism with their children and overcoming “colorblind” ideologies, while others from their communities resent and reject their association with and privileges from racist histories and policies. Parents, families, educators, and communities all play key roles in supporting children and youth in understanding the meaning of race and their racial identities in society. Such support includes preparing youth to recognize and adaptively respond to racialized experiences.

In this series, diversity scholars share insights on what it means to grow up amid a renewed tide of racism. Drs. Charles H.F. Davis and Keon M. McGuire reflect on being Black men — and teaching Black students — while emerging data have shown that 1 in 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by the police. As they share, “when Black men engage in the same gendered practices as White men, they are rarely afforded the same sympathetic treatment, individualized attention, and presumption of innocence.” This presumption of guilt (and threat) materializes in violence directed at Black men no matter where they are or what they are doing, a truth exemplified by the recent killing of Botham Jean in his own apartment by white officer Amber Guyger. Additionally, as Dr. Jalin Johnson describes, these racist realities must be taken into account when raising Black children.

Dr. Allison Skinner reminds us that eradicating racism and racist structures is not simply the responsibility of those who are the targets of racism but of all societal members. Indeed, her work with white families suggests that rejecting overtly racist practices or individual-level behaviors is not enough to support effective work for racial justice. Instead, it is also necessary to name and understand underlying racist histories and structures and one’s active and passive participation in them. That is, most everyone would reject slavery, but will white parents teach their white children that red lining, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and mass deportation create enormous gaps in health and wealth between white communities and communities of color?

Along with family and community, media represent increasingly important developmental contexts for children and youth. Dr. Manoucheka Celeste asks, what influence does the media have on racial identity development? Is it possible to raise children and youth to be “media literate,” that is, aware of racial tropes that diminish and marginalized communities and communities of color? For those of multiracial identities, especially Millennials who have grown up amid increasingly blurry racial categories, Dr. Jonathan Cox asks how perceived in-between-ness impacts selection and description of one’s own racial identity. And Dr. Samuel Museus and colleagues remind us that racial binaries often serve to limit identity development among groups that do not fit neatly into those binaries.

Finally, developmental scholar Dr. José Causadias asserts the necessity of explicitly naming features of racist systems and relationships among them if we wish to support understanding of them, which is critical to ultimately dismantling such systems. Dr. Causadias presents the specific example of researchers’ continued reliance on general euphemisms (such as “current political moment”) when writing about specific policies and political actors, rejecting this tendency as incongruent with the scientific approach and goals of precision and knowledge production. The essay also suggests implications for how researchers of child and youth development, many funded by the federal government, can navigate how they attribute the racial inequalities they study to deficiencies in our political systems.

Each of these essays in different ways addresses a key question: How can we create a better, safer world for youth constructing a sense of who they are in the midst of increasingly visible racism? Taken together, we hope this series pushes our readers to reflect on how we, as researchers and informed advocates, as members of families and communities, and as participants in political systems, can support youth and young adults during socially turbulent times. The series also makes salient that this support must come with an awareness of our own identities and the inequalities and privileges associated with them and also be informed by knowledge based on the life experiences and perspectives of youth, families, and communities themselves.