Health

Black boys more fearful in whiter neighborhoods, study finds

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Young black men expect increased scrutiny, surveillance and even direct targeting when in areas that have more white people than they typically encounter, a study has found.

Researchers from the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University gave 506 black boys aged 11 to 17 smartphones to track their locations every 30 seconds for a week. The boys were asked where they were, with whom and how safe they felt around Columbus, Ohio, on a scale of 1 to 5. The mini survey took place from 2014 to 2016. Researchers received almost 7,400 total surveys.

Christopher Browning, a professor at Ohio State University and the study's lead author, has extensive experience researching how kids neighborhoods affect their behaviors and health.

In Columbus, where the study was conducted, Browning said: "There are high levels of segregation and poverty, but a lot of variation in close proximity — there are affluent suburbs that are next to neighborhoods that are really poor."

His own childhood experience, growing up on the South side of Chicago, included navigating different neighborhoods and environments that inspired him to pursue this study for answers.

"Chicago is a place in which everyone knows where you're not supposed to go," Browning told ABC News. "In social science, this is the area we are interested in — neighborhood environments. When we think of environments that do not include family, we think about the neighborhood — potential exposures for youth that may have some important consequences down the line."

As an urban sociologist, he was concerned that maybe kids didn't spend much time in their neighborhoods and the interactions may be more complex — their environments outside of their homes and immediate neighborhoods may be affecting their outcomes on a day-to-day basis.

Findings showed that young black men felt less safe in areas with more white people than they typically encountered. They also felt less safe in neighborhoods that were poorer than the ones they frequented. In contrast, black girls did not report feeling less safe in whiter areas. Researchers also noticed that white youths tend to self-segregate.

"Their experiences aren't as variable — they do not spend as much time in black neighborhoods that black youth spend in white neighborhoods," Browning said. "It's the experience of having to navigate places that are whiter that may actually introduce more scrutiny to black male youth — by police, by residents — creating the potential for harassment and even victimization."

In particular, Browning and his researchers were concerned about the long-term consequences of the perception of safety.

"This is thought to be one of the reasons why black youth are generally not as healthy as white youth," Browning said. "There could be some physical and mental health trajectories which we could extrapolate to explain healthcare disparities in adult populations."

The old school mentality about African American youth is that they feel less safe because they live in areas of higher poverty and segregation, but the team found that, on average, African American teens didn't feel less safe. They felt less safe only when visiting poorer neighborhoods or whiter neighborhoods.

"We are not arguing that growing up in a poor, segregated neighborhood doesn't present challenges. One of the challenges are that those neighborhoods tend to have higher violence," Browning said

He suggests that youth may eventually learn to control the experiences and typical exposures they have in their own neighborhoods to reduce the likelihood of experiencing violence. However, when they go to different neighborhoods, they cannot control how they are being perceived and received.

"Who knows who is calling the police if someone decides that you don't belong there?" Browning said. "This may lead to feelings of insecurity in those places."

"The study confirmed what I've always known to be true — given all the things that are going on in the world but also from personal experience, particularly for African Americans and people of color, there is an awareness that there are places that you are seen as not belonging," Dennis D. Parker, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program and an adjunct professor at New York Law School, told ABC News. "This study shows that there are serious issues that create a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability in public spaces that should be for everyone. I don't know of black friends who have not spoken to their children, particularly their sons, of dealing with the police. I know of no white parents that have had to do that."

Dr. Anna Chacon is a dermatologist and part of the ABC News medical unit.

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