What is the Impact of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination on Adolescents’ Well-Being?

Aprile D. Benner, Yijie Wang, Yishan Shen, Alaina E. Boyle, Richelle Polk, and Yen-Pi Cheng

Introduction

Racial and ethnic disparities, or the differences between minorities and whites, are common across multiple domains in the United States. For example, compared to whites, African Americans and Latinx* individuals have, on average, worse educational performance and lower educational attainment, lower labor force participation, and higher rates of teenage pregnancy, poverty, and morbidity and mortality. Asian Americans also face disadvantages that leave them vulnerable to mistreatment. In addition to the stereotype of being “model minorities” who are expected as a group to excel academically, Asian Americans are often viewed as “perpetual foreigners,” even if they and their families were born in the U.S.

These racial and ethnic disparities are likely rooted in experiences of discrimination that occur quite early in individuals’ lives. Disparities in health and well-being, in fact, begin to emerge in childhood and adolescence, with repercussions across life. Adolescence is therefore an important time to study racial and ethnic discrimination because the developmental processes that young people experience at this time of life form the foundations for perceiving this type of discrimination, making meaning of it for their lives, and dealing with its consequences.

In this brief, the authors report on a meta-analysis–a statistical analysis of data from multiple studies that are pooled into one larger dataset—that examined whether adolescents’ perceptions of racial and ethnic discrimination are linked to their well-being. Specifically, they focus on the impact of discrimination on socioemotional distress (such as depression and low self-esteem), academic success, and risky health behaviors (such as substance use or risky sexual behaviors). The authors identified data from 214 peer-reviewed articles, theses, and dissertations on 91,338 unique adolescents; the researchers focused on 11 indicators of well-being.

* Latinx is a gender-neutral term used instead of Latino or Latina.

Key Findings

  • More experiences of racial and ethnic discrimination are associated with:
    • higher levels of socioemotional distress;
    • higher likelihood of engaging in risky health behaviors and delinquent activities; and
    • lower self-esteem and lower academic achievement and engagement. (See figure)
  • Racial and ethnic discrimination pose the greatest risk for Latinx* youth, who had higher socioemotional distress and lower academic achievement and engagement compared to African American and Asian youth.
    • Latinx boys who experienced discrimination show a particularly heightened risk of poor academic performance.
  • Younger adolescents are more likely than older adolescents to experience socioemotional distress because of racial and ethnic discrimination.

Benner brief figure

This figure shows that more experiences of racial and ethnic discrimination are associated with adolescents having higher distress, higher likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, and lower self-esteem and academic success.

Policy Implications

Historically, legislative action such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, judicial rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and larger initiatives such as the European Union’s antidiscrimination directives have sought to address differential treatment across racial and ethnic groups. However, the research described in this brief shows that adolescents of color continue to experience racism and discrimination, and these experiences take a negative toll on their growth and development. In addition, racial and ethnic disparities in morbidity and mortality make racial and ethnic discrimination a concern for public health. Evidence from this meta-analysis suggests that interventions must focus early in development because mistreatment tied to race or ethnicity negatively impacts mental and physical health during adolescence. Finally, given that racial and ethnic discrimination perpetrated by peers and educators often occurs in schools, greater attention should be placed on educational policies that promote equality, inclusion, and meaningful interactions across racial and ethnic divides.

Reference

Benner, A.D., Wang, Y., Shen, Y., Boyle, A.E., Polk, R., & Cheng, Y.-P. (2018). Racial/Ethnic discrimination and well-being during adolescence: A meta-analytic review. American Psychologist. Published online ahead of print.

Suggested Citation

Benner, A.D., Wang, Y., Shen, Y., Boyle, A.E., Polk, R., & Cheng, Y.-P. (2018). What is the impact of racial and ethnic discrimination on adolescents’ well-being? PRC Research Brief 3(13). DOI: 10.15781/T2251G45S.

About the Authors

Aprile D. Benner (abenner@prc.utexas.edu) is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin; Yijie Wang is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University; Yishan Shen is an assistant professor in the Department of School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University; Alaina E. Boyle is a graduate student in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, UT Austin; and at the time of the writing of the original paper, Richelle Polk and Yen-Pi Cheng were graduate students in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, UT Austin.

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the William T. Grant Foundation and the National Science Foundation to Aprile Benner, and from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin (P2CHD042849). Opinions reflect those of the authors and not necessarily those of the granting agencies.


  •   Map
  • Population Research Center

    University of Texas at Austin
    305 E. 23rd Street / RLP 2.602
    Mail Stop G1800
    Austin, Texas 78712-1699
    512-471-5514