Discrimination and Psychological Functioning
Much of what is known about the impact of racial discrimination on psychological functioning has been gleaned from research on adults. Recent research suggests that experiencing racial discrimination is common, particularly among Black populations. In a large-scale national survey of 25–74 year olds, approximately 49% of Black respondents reported experiencing one major racist event (e.g., hassled by police, denied/received inferior service, discouraged by teacher from seeking higher education) in their lifetime (Kessler, Mickelson, & Williams, 1999). In terms of day-to-day experiences of discrimination (e.g., being treated as inferior, called names or harassed, responded to with fear), 81% of Black adults reported that they have experienced at least one incident of day-to-day discrimination. These findings are consistent with a number of other studies that indicate that racial discrimination is common and pervades many aspects of life for Blacks (D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996; Sanders-Thompson, 1996).
There is also a growing body of research documenting the adverse effects of racial discrimination on the psychological functioning of adults. African Americans who experience discrimination report lower levels of subjective well-being (e.g., Williams, Yu, Jackson, & Anderson, 1997) and lower levels of mastery and higher levels of psychological distress (Broman, Mavaddat, & Hsu, 2000). Experiencing racial discrimination is also associated with increased nonspecific psychological distress (e.g., Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey, 1999; Fischer & Shaw, 1999; Kessler et al., 1999), specific psychiatric symptoms such as somatization, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsion (Klonoff, Landrine, & Ullman, 1999), mood disorders (Kessler et al., 1999), and anxiety disorder (Kessler et al., 1999). Recent longitudinal research by Sellers and Shelton (2003) suggests a causal link between the frequency of perceived racial discrimination and subsequent psychological distress. Despite the growing literature on the impact of racial discrimination on psychological functioning of African American adults, relatively few studies have examined the impact of racial discrimination on the developing psyches of African American adolescents.
Research suggests that adolescents are cognizant of discrimination and they can provide descriptions of incidents of discrimination (Verkuyten, Kinkett, & van der Wielen, 1997). In addition, Fisher et al. (2000) found that a large proportion of African American and Hispanic youth in their sample reported that they had personally experienced incidents of discrimination, such as being harassed by store personnel and police, and being perceived as not smart. In a sample of over 6,000 middle school students of various ethnic groups, African Americans adolescents were significantly more likely than their White, Mexican American, and Vietnamese classmates to report that they had experienced discrimination and that other members of their racial/ethnic group had experienced discrimination (Romero & Roberts, 1998). Romero and Roberts (1998) also found evidence that ethnic identity was associated with more racial discrimination in their sample. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the association between ethnic identity and racial discrimination exists for the subgroup of African American participants because the authors did not report their analyses for each ethnic group separately.
Some of the research on the impact of racial discrimination on adolescents has been conducted outside of the United States. Research conducted with adolescents from immigrant groups in Finland indicates that experiencing discrimination has an adverse impact on self-esteem (Jasinskaja-Lahti & Liebkind, 2001; Liebkind & Jasinskaja, 2000; Verkuyten, 1998). Other research with immigrant adolescents in Finland also found a link between experiencing racial discrimination and increased acculturative stress, behavior problems, and lower levels of life satisfaction (Liebkind & Jasinskaja, 2000).
Findings from the few studies conducted in the United States that examined the relationship between racial discrimination and psychological functioning among adolescents are consistent with the findings from Finland (Clark, Coleman, & Novak, 2004; Fisher et al., 2000; Scott, 2003, Simons, Murray, McLoyd, Lin, Cutrona, & Conger, 2002; Wong, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2003). In a sample of African American adolescents, Clark, Coleman, and Novak (2004) found that perceived discrimination was positively related to externalizing and internalizing symptoms. Fisher et al. (2000) found that distress, as the result of peer and educational discrimination, was associated with lower self-esteem for a sample of ethnic minority adolescents. In one of the few longitudinal studies in the area, Wong et al. (2003) found that perceived discrimination at school (i.e. peers and teachers) was negatively related to adolescents' reports of achievement motivation, self-competency beliefs, psychological resiliency, and self-esteem in their sample of African American junior high school students. Also, they found that reports of discrimination at school were positively related to anger, depressive symptomatology, perceptions of friends' negative characteristics, and adolescents' involvement in problem behaviors. Recently, Scott (2003) explored the relationship between adolescents' experiences of discrimination and their specific coping behaviors. His results revealed that experiencing discrimination was related to externalizing (e.g. “curse out loud”) coping strategies.
Racial Identity and Psychosocial Outcomes
One of the fundamental goals of adolescence is to begin to investigate and develop one's identity (Erikson, 1968). According to Tatum (1997), adolescents grapple with the questions of “Who am I?” and “Who can I be?” This involves the integration of different dimensions of an adolescent's life such as religious beliefs, racial/ethnic identities, and vocational plans (Phinney, 1992; Phinney & Rosenthal, 1992; Tatum, 1997). Therefore, in their search to acquire an optimal racial identity, African American adolescents attempt to successfully integrate the values of their culture and the values of the larger society. Tatum (1997) asserts that this integration involves asking the questions “Who am I racially?” and “What does it mean to be African American?” These questions are significant because they illustrate the process that African American adolescents have to contend with to understand that their experiences may be different because of prejudice, discrimination, and structural barriers that frequently limit aspirations and hinder their achievement (Tatum, 1997).
Racial identity has consistently been conceptually linked with the psychological functioning of African Americans (Azibo, 1983; Baldwin, 1984; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1998; Parham, 1989; White & Parham, 1990). Racial identity has been conceptualized as having both a direct and an indirect link to psychological well-being. With respect to a direct link, Baldwin (1984) has argued that a strong identification with being Black and embracing a definition of Blackness that focuses on a specific African value orientation is a necessary component of healthy psychological functioning among African Americans. The empirical evidence for a direct link between racial identity and psychological functioning is inconclusive. Cross (1991) summarized 45 studies from 1961 to 1984 examining a direct relationship between reference group orientation (RGO) (i.e., racial identity) and indicators of personal identity such as self-esteem, anxiety, introversion–extroversion, and depression. Some studies reported a marginally to highly significant relationship between racial identity and self-esteem (e.g., Stephen & Rosenfield, 1979) whereas other studies reported no significant relationship between racial identity and self-esteem (e.g., Rosenberg, 1979).
More recent studies have been equivocal regarding a direct link between racial identity and psychological well-being. Some studies have found that individuals for whom race is less salient and who have anti-Black attitudes reported higher levels of anxiety, paranoia, and depressive symptomatology (Carter, 1991; Pyant & Yanico, 1991). For instance, using the Racial Identity Attitudes Scale to operationalize racial identity attitudes, Munford (1994) found that pre-encounter, encounter, and immersion/emersion attitudes were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms and internalization attitudes were associated with fewer depressive symptoms. Pre-encounter, encounter, and immersion/emersion attitudes are associated with lower levels of racial identity development in Cross' (1971) original model of Nigrescence, whereas immersion attitudes represent a mature state of racial identity development. In contrast to Munford's (1994) findings, Sellers and Shelton (2003) found that racial identity attitudes were not significantly related to indicators of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress in a sample of African American college students. Sellers et al. (2003) also found little support for a direct link between racial identity attitudes and psychological distress in a longitudinal study of African American young adults. Taken together, the findings from these studies underscore the impossibility to draw firm conclusions regarding the association between racial identity and psychosocial outcomes.
Racial identity is a component of RGO, the part of the self-concept which focuses on the ethnic and cultural lens an individual uses to interpret the world. Cross (1991) asserted the investigation of RGO will provide a more comprehensive understanding of how an individual incorporates the different aspects of culture and ethnicity into his or her daily experiences. Through examining racial identity, the indirect relationship between psychological well-being and experiences with racial discrimination can be more fully explained (Cross et al., 1998; Sellers et al., 2001). For example, Sellers et al. (2003) reported evidence that the relationship between racial identity and psychological distress may be mediated by the experience of racial discrimination. They found that individuals who believed that race was a more central identity and who felt that other groups had more negative attitudes toward African Americans reported experiencing more discrimination, which in turn was associated with greater perceived stress and higher levels of psychological distress.
Racial identity has also been proposed to have an indirect effect on psychological well-being through its role as a buffer against the impact of racial discrimination (Anderson, 1991; Cross et al., 1998; Terrell & Taylor, 1980). Unfortunately, very few studies have empirically investigated the proposed buffering ability of racial identity to protect African Americans from negative psychological consequences associated with experiencing racism. This is due, in large part, to the scarcity of studies that include measures of experiences of racism, racial identity, and psychological functioning within African American populations. Wong et al. (2003) conducted one of the few studies that includes measures of discrimination, racial identity, and various academic and socioemotional outcomes (Wong et al., 2003). The results of their study revealed that having a greater connection to one's ethnic group buffered the negative impact of school discrimination on self-concept of academic ability, school achievement, engagement in problem behaviors, and involvement with friends who had fewer positive qualities. Wong and colleagues focused exclusively on discrimination experienced at school. Additional studies are needed that examine adolescents' everyday experiences of discrimination across multiple contexts and situations.
Multidimensional model of racial identity (MMRI). Recently, Sellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, & Chavous (1998) have proposed the MMRI as a framework for studying African American racial identity. The model defines racial identity in terms of the significance and meaning that African Americans place on race in defining themselves. The model proposes four dimensions of racial identity attitudes. Two dimensions seem to be particularly relevant to understanding the potential impact of racial discrimination on psychological well-being. Racial centrality refers to the extent to which a person normatively defines her/himself with regard to race. Racial regard refers to a person's affective and evaluative judgment of his/her race. The regard dimension consists of both a private and a public component. Private regard refers to the extent to which individuals feel positively or negatively toward African Americans and their membership in that group. Public regard refers to the extent to which individuals feel that others view African Americans positively or negatively.
Recent work using the MMRI suggest that both the centrality and regard dimensions may be important in understanding African American adults' experiences with racial discrimination and the impact of these experiences on their psychological well-being. Shelton and Sellers (2000) found evidence that individuals with higher levels of racial centrality are more likely to interpret racially ambiguous derogatory events as being the result of racism. Other research has also found that racial centrality was associated with greater reports of experiencing racial discrimination (Neblett et al., 2004; Sellers et al., 2003; Sellers & Shelton, 2003). These same studies also suggest that centrality and regard attitudes may also act as buffers against the psychological impact of experiencing racial discrimination in African American young adults. Sellers et al. (2003) found that the association between racial discrimination and perceived stress was weaker for individuals for whom race was a more central identity. Sellers and Shelton (2003) found that individuals who felt that other groups had more negative attitudes toward African Americans (public regard) were less bothered by experiences of discrimination that they encountered.
Risk and Resilience Model
Several researchers in the prevention sciences have proposed a risk and resilience framework for understanding social problems (Zimmerman & Arunkimar, 1994). Such a framework focuses on identifying both those factors that are associated with a particular undesirable outcome and those factors that allow individuals to be resilient against the risk. The risk and resilience approach provides a framework for understanding why individuals with the same level of exposure to risk do not necessarily have the same outcomes (Zimmerman & Arunkimar, 1994). Several models have been proposed for understanding risk and resiliency (Garmezy, 1991; Zimmerman & Arunkimar, 1994). The compensatory model and the protective factor model are two of the most prevalent models used in resilience research. The compensatory model focuses on factors an individual possesses that equalize negative outcomes (Zimmerman, Bingenheimer, & Notaro, 2002). The compensatory model argues that the resilient factor is associated with a positive outcome across all levels of risk. As such, from an analytic perspective, the model is interested in the direct influence of the resilient factor on the outcome after controlling for the effect of the risk factor. On the other hand, the protective factor model suggests that some factors may buffer the relationship between exposure to risks and negative outcomes (Zimmerman et al., 2002). In other words, the association between level of risk and negative outcome is stronger for individuals with lower levels of the resilient factor than for those with higher levels. From an analytic perspective, the protective factor model calls for an analysis of the moderating effects of the resilient factor.
The Present Study
Using a risk and resilience approach as a conceptual framework, the present study investigates whether the frequency of African American adolescents' perceived experiences with racial discrimination is a significant risk factor for lower levels of psychological functioning (as measured by higher levels of perceived stress and depression and lower levels of psychological well-being). The present study also investigates whether racial identity attitudes (as measured by centrality, private and public regard beliefs) serve as resilient factors against the impact of racial discrimination on psychological functioning. The study tests both a compensatory model (direct relationships of racial identity) and a protective factor model (buffering effects of racial identity). In addition, we examine whether African American adolescents' racial identity attitudes are associated with the frequency in which adolescents perceive experiencing racial discrimination.
Based on previous research (e.g., Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey, 1999; Sellers & Shelton, 2003, Shelton & Sellers, 2000), we hypothesize that African American adolescents who feel that race is a more central identity and who believe that other groups have more negative attitudes toward African Americans are likely to report experiencing racial discrimination more frequently. Also based on previous research (e.g., Kessler et al., 1999; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996; Noh, Beiser, Kaspar, Hou, & Rummens, 1999), we predict that more frequent reports of racial discrimination will be significantly related to lower levels of psychological functioning. Because of the equivocal nature of the literature regarding the relationship between racial identity attitudes and psychological functioning, we make no a priori prediction regarding a direct association between adolescents' racial identity attitudes and psychological functioning. Finally, consistent with other findings in the research literature (Sellers et al., 2003; Sellers & Shelton, 2003), we predict that African American adolescents for whom race is more central and who believe that other groups hold more negative attitudes toward African Americans will be buffered against the negative impact of racial discrimination.