New study looks at discrimination African-American adolescents face in schools

Nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools, African-American adolescents of all socioeconomic backgrounds continue to face instances of racial discrimination in the classroom. A new study sheds light on that and points to the need for students of color to rely on personal and cultural assets to succeed academically.

The study “African American Adolescents’ Academic Persistence: A Strengths-Based Approach,” was published online May 24 in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.


“This study is unique in that it is a socioeconomically diverse sample of African-American adolescents — from poverty and low-income environments all the way to those with a high socioeconomic status,” said Sheretta T. Butler-Barnes, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author.

“School-based racial discrimination experiences are still occurring across the board for these adolescents, and it’s having a negative impact on academic persistence,” she said.

Butler-Barnes said that’s not so much surprising as it is distressing. “It’s 2013 and it’s still an issue,” she said.

The study began when Butler-Barnes was a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context. While not letting schools and institutions off the hook, the research also focuses on ways that an individual’s strengths — racial pride, self-efficacy and self-acceptance — can buffer the negative experiences.

“The study keys in to teachers and parents the need to recognize that these things are still happening,” Butler-Barnes said, noting that schools could hold workshops speaking about race and ethnic differences to raise awareness of what people of color tend to experience in school settings.

Butler-Barnes led the first phase of this research, which is ongoing at the University of Michigan. To view an abstract of the study, visit here.

Co-authors are Tabbye M. Chavous, PhD, professor and associate dean for academic programs and initiatives at the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan; Noelle Hurd, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Virginia; and Fatima Varner, PhD, assistant professor at Fordham University.

Butler-Barnes joined the faculty of the Brown School in July. Her research explores positive youth development, specifically African-American adolescents and achievement outcomes, and seeks to identify strengths regardless of socioeconomic status.