How Kids Get Clobbered by Racial Discrimination

  • Share
  • Read Later

Lou Dobbs thinks I’m a silly fool. He said so last year, right on the radio. Dobbs was mad at me because of a story I wrote about how quickly ethnic names are disappearing in favor of Americanized ones among second- and third-generation Latin Americans. This rush to assimilate, I suggested, might be an attempt at a sort of ethnic vanishing act, driven partly by the increasingly intense anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by Dobbs and others in recent years.

It may or my not be fair to single out Dobbs, but one thing appears certain: it’s indeed getting tougher to be a Latino in the U.S.—and, as with so many other things, it’s kids who are getting hit the hardest. In a study just published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, UCLA grad student Virginia Huynh, working under the supervision of professor of psychiatry Andrew Fuligini, surveyed 601 teens of different ethnicities, seeking to determine  their experiences with prejudice and the impact that had on their physical health, emotional strength and academic performance.

Hunyh’s sample group, all high school seniors, was made up of 36% Latin American kids, 43% Asian Americans and 19% European American. She limited her subjects to seniors for important developmental reasons. Kids in the 17 and 18 year old range are sophisticated enough to recognize prejudice when they see it—even if it’s subtly expressed—but they’re emotionally unformed enough that they can’t shrug it off without at least some psychic damage. (More on Free Play Won’t Make Your Child Smarter)

“This is a very vulnerable period in kids’ lives,” says Hunyh. “They’re not quite adults and they’re not quite kids. They’re still trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in society.”

In order to see how that place was shaped by discrimination, Hunyh had the kids fill out daily diaries each night for 14 days, reporting on whether they experienced discrimination from either peers or adults during the previous 24 hours. She also asked them for regular assessments of how often they felt discriminated against in a more general way, on a scale of one (“never”) to five (“all the time.”) She used a similar sliding scale to evaluate the kids for symptoms of depression, distress and physical ills, and she measured their self-esteem by having them agree or disagree with such statements as “I feel that I have a number of good qualities.” Finally, she obtained permission to look at all of their grade point averages.

That’s a deep dive into a teen’s mind and it yielded a lot of revealing results. Sixty percent of all the subjects reported experiencing discrimination from peers with at least some regularity, and 63% reported it coming from adults just as frequently. Latin American kids suffered the highest level of adult discrimination, followed by Asian Americans and finally European Americans. Asian kids experienced the greatest amount of peer prejudice, followed by Latinos. As Hunyh predicted, the incidence of physical, emotional and academic problems all tracked the incidence of bias closely, with those kids who were most discriminated against suffering the greatest harm.

Inside the numbers there were other, subtler findings. Boys generally experienced greater discrimination from both adults and peers than girls, and this was particularly the case with Latin American boys who, Hunyh speculated in the paper, “are seen as more threatening than the girls.” Asian kids, on the other hand, experience the paradoxical bias that comes from being part of the so-called “model minority,” high achievers who keep their heads down, get good grades and stay out of trouble. This breeds admiration, which is often just a short hop from envy. That, in turn may explain why discrimination so often comes at Asians from their peers—with whom they are in academic and social competition. But simply because Asians and Latinos suffer bigotry for different reasons doesn’t mean the impact isn’t the same. (More on Top 10 Things Today’s Kids Will Never Experience)

“If the kids experience discrimination it’s equally painful even if there are qualitatively different reasons for why they feel it,” says Hunyh. “Anxiety, self-esteem and grades are all affected in the same way.”

If there is a critical difference between the two groups, it comes from the politics of the time in which they’re coming of age. Asian kids exposed to discrimination suffer real harm, but it typically happens in a personalized way—with individual acts of bias directed at them by individual people. There’s nothing that quite compares with the more institutionalized villification that Latinos—and particularly Mexicans, who represented 85% of the Latin kids in Hunyh’s study—are currently experiencing. There’s no Jan Brewer or Sheriff Arpaio or, yes, cable TV shouters demonizing Asians, and that makes a difference.

“Kids perceive it when adults in society see their group negatively or as if they don’t belong,” says Hunyh. “It can come from teachers, it can come from the media. All the messages that their group isn’t valued can really have an affect.”

None of this is to say that illegal immigration is not a real problem in the U.S. or that a solution isn’t needed. But solutions are reached by reasoned debate, not by xenophobic lawmaking or TV bloviating. Those kinds of excesses do real damage to real people. When those people are kids, the harm, and the shame, are even greater.

More on

What Kids Should Know About Money At 9, 13, 18 and 23