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Black Youth Feel Alienated, But Still Get Involved In Political and Social Issues

Black youth believe that discrimination is holding them back, the government cares little about them and that even immigrants receive better governmental treatment than Blacks, concludes a study released Thursday.

The study, titled the “Black Youth Project,” was initiated to document and disclose the complex and wide-ranging ideas, attitudes and perspectives of the nation’s Black youth, particularly in terms of pressing social and political issues and their sexual behaviors. The study also challenges many negative stereotypes attributed to Black youth.

“There has been a lot of talk about African-American youth from people like Bill Cosby,” says Dr. Cathy Cohen, the project’s leader and a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “Unfortunately, most of these comments are not grounded in any type of empirical reality.

“Similarly, there have been a number of other studies of African-American young people, largely focused on the outcomes of their behaviors that do not include the voices and views of young Black people,” she continues.

The research team conducted a nationwide survey of 1,590 Black, White and Hispanic youth, between the ages of 15 and 25. They also conducted in-depth interviews with 40 of the Black youth who participated in the survey.

In terms of political issues, 56 percent of Black youth say that government officials care little about them. Only 44 percent of White youth shared that view. Nearly half of the Black youth surveyed believe the government treats immigrants better than Blacks, whereas a mere 29 percent of White young adults and 18 percent of Hispanic youth agreed that immigrants are treated better than Blacks.

Even though they feel alienated from politicians, Black youth still involve themselves in politics as much as their peers, the study found. Nearly the same number of youth in each group reported that they had “buycotted, or purchased a product from a company whose social or political values they liked, in the past 12 months.

“What is somewhat surprising is that [Black youth] haven’t completely checked out of the political system and don’t feel completely alienated from society,” Cohen says. “They are very articulate in terms of talking about the lack of opportunities, the sub par schooling, how so few good living-wage jobs are available to them. But they are also willing to talk about their own personal responsibility. They see themselves as trying to improve on their decision-making, but they also need greater resources and greater opportunities if they are really going to succeed. And I think that is very different from the view that we hear from older Black Americans and the rest of White society about them.”

From a social standpoint, Black youth are about 20 percent more likely than the other two groups to believe that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are wrong. The study also found that 72 percent of Black and Hispanic young adults believe that there are too many references to sex in rap music videos, and 62 percent of Black youth say that rap music videos are degrading to Black women. Black youth (58 percent) are also more confident in recognizing negative messages in rap music than Hispanic (45 percent) and White (23 percent) youth.

Sexually, 77 percent of Black youth say they use protection every time, compared to 66 percent of Whites and 64 percent of Hispanics. More than 90 percent of all the youth surveyed said that sex education should be mandatory in high schools.

“We often hear kind of anecdotal stories of young Black people having too much sex or young Black people engaging or supporting hip-hop that is bad and detrimental or young Black people engaging in criminal activity, and we rarely have a chance to see the complexity of their lives,” Cohen says. “I think what is very interesting about the data is that you find a balanced representation of who they are and the lives they are trying to live.”

The initial surveys were conducted between July and November of 2005, followed by the in-depth interviews of youth from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Gary, Ind., in 2006. The survey, funded by the Ford Foundation, had a margin of error of less than 2 percent.

“We wanted to give young Black people a chance to voice their opinions and attitudes directly without someone kind of filtering how they think about their lives and the world,” Cohen says. “Quite often you hear entertainers, commentators, journalists talk about young Black people, but we rarely get to talk with or to young Black people. Hopefully, this study will begin that conversation.”

–Ibram Rogers


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