Racism is Making Our Youth Sick
So often, we equate racism with episodic blasts of horror—the murder by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, the shooting death by Louisville police of EMT Breonna Taylor, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by armed civilians in Georgia, to name just a few recent instances. When news of these events goes viral, we feel stunned with disbelief.
Yet the reality is that racism is a daily occurrence, and for children, especially teenagers, the impacts can be harmful and long-lasting. At Covenant House, where close to 90% of the youth we serve in the U.S. are people of color, including more than 60% who are black and African American, we help young people recognize both the impacts of racism that are part of their lived experience and their own capacity for resilience.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MSEd*, is the director of health services at Covenant House Pennsylvania and the co-editor of “Reaching Teens.” A new edition of the interdisciplinary toolkit will be published this month and includes a chapter co-authored by multiple experts in the field** that specifically treats racism and its impacts on young people.
Not surprisingly, racism negatively impacts a young person’s sense of self. It is as teens that young people establish critical aspects of their identity within the various environments, influences and exposures that surround them. “These forces can either create tension and deliver toxic levels of stress or build resilience and other strengths,” the authors say.
Racism also attempts to lock young people of color into low expectations for their lives, they add. Two-thirds of black and Latinx youth attend segregated schools that often have lower budgets that impact class size, teacher qualifications, and the availability of instructional resources. “In these schools, youth of color are subject to biased perceptions of misbehavior by educators and stories that perpetuate a ‘failure narrative,’” the writers underscore.
Racism figures among what psychologists and social workers call “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. Initially considered to be related primarily to trauma that youth experience in the home, such as abuse and neglect, ACEs are now understood to include stressors that occur outside the home as well, such as community violence, living in unsafe neighborhoods, and racial discrimination.
Adverse childhood experiences, including racism, have been found to lead to physical health conditions such as heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cancer, emphysema, diabetes, and fractures, and to mental health conditions such as substance use, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Racism is literally making our young people ill.
But these negative results are not etched in stone. Research also tells us that the presence of caring adults and positive relationships are protective factors that can mitigate against the harsh effects of ACEs, including racism. Young people of color don’t have to be locked into low expectations and negative outcomes and can, instead, live into their full potential.
At Covenant House, we are guided by five principles that are informed by the trauma we encounter every day among our youth. In addition to immediate care and sanctuary, our principles include value communication (modeling caring relationships based on love, trust, respect, and honesty), structure (especially stability), and choice (by which we encourage youth to believe in themselves and make informed choices for themselves).
As a society, we can help young people of color overcome the traumatic effects of racism if we will all do a better job of being their allies, encouraging their capacity for resilience, and remembering, as the chapter authors remind us, “We belong to each other.”
They continue, “Together, regardless of race and beyond race, we must want what is right for each other, aspire for better, and work for greater if we are to leave the generations of youth that will come after us a just and equitable society.”
*Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is also professor of pediatrics in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the director of The Center for Parent and Teen Communication, as well as the author of several books and editor of “Reaching Teens: Strength-based, Trauma-sensitive, Resilience-building Communication Strategies Rooted in Positive Youth Development.”
**The new chapter in “Reaching Teens” is called “The Traumatic Impact of Racism and Discrimination on Young People and How to Talk About It.” The authors are Maria Veronica Svetaz, MD, MPH, FSAHM, FAAFP; Tamera Coyne-Beasley, MD, MPH, FAAP, FSAHM; Maria Trent, MD, MPH, FAAP, FSAHM; Roy Wade Jr., MD, PhD, MPH, MSHP; Michael Howard Ryan, MS, LPC; Michele Kelley, ScD, MSW, MA; and Veenod Chulani, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, FSAHM.