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BPD Update Online, Spring 2001
Teaching On African-American Youth: A Curricular Study Guide

by Larry E. Davis, Ph.D., Washington University
Trina Williams, M. Phil, MSW
Jeanne Saunders, MSSW

DESPITE AMERICA'S TREMENDOUS ECONOMIC ACHIEVEMENTS DURING THE PAST DECADE, the world for African American youth has remained a troubled one. As a group they remain academically behind their white colleagues in both test scores and graduation rates. (1),(2) This has not only impacted their economic outcomes but has affected their family formation as well. (3) Approximately 40% of African American youth live in poverty (4) and African American males are seven times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts. (5) The vast majority of these youth, 65%, live in single parent homes. (6) Hence, they are often deprived of the economic and social benefits provided by the presence of both parents. (7) Their percentage of incarceration rates exceeds those of all other youth and some evidence suggests that are likely to receive more severe punishment for similar offenses. (8)

The unemployment rates for African American youth are two to three times as high as that of white youth (9) (and this in what have been good economic times). Rates of teen pregnancy among African American teens has been declining, but remains twice as high as that of white teens. (10) In short, African American youth continue to experience something closer to the American nightmare than the American dream.

"...African American youth
continue to experience something
closer to the American nightmare
than the American dream."

With this as a backdrop, a course on social problems of African American youth is an easy and exciting class to teach. And because the content is so relevant and part of each of our daily lives, interest is typically high. Moreover, teachers will have no difficulty finding pertinent information in virtually every newspaper and news magazine, which bring to life the often statistically complicated and sterile youth related research others have conducted in the field. Nor will either teacher or student have to search to find a rationale for the importance and need for such a course and its significance to social work practice.

We have in the past taught a course in our school titled "Social Problems of Youth" and have at times been surprised at how much attention must be given to African Americans. Of course this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that it pays attention to a population in need of attention, but bad in that it has the potential to stigmatize these youth as problems in our society. It may also appear to some students that you are teaching a course on the "Social Problems of African American Youth " even when this was not your intention. But even those courses which do not have as their goal to focus specifically on African American youth will, as a function of real world reality, address the difficulties of these youth for they are woven in the very fabric of our culture.

Those who teach courses on the troubles of youth must be sensitive to a number of issues. First, teachers must give adequate attention to African American youth who are disproportionately experiencing social problems. Second, not all African American youth experience these social problems so care must be taken not to generalize the troubles of some African American youth to all African American youth. Third, efforts must be made to be fair to the troubles experienced by other racial or ethnic youth who's troubles may be less pronounced than those of African American youth. Social work students should leave class having a well-rounded knowledge of the problems of African American youth and all youth in general.

Students have reported that their learning increased when they were able to link real life stories with the statistics that were discussed in class. We have found that these real life stories can come from the current news media and from African American youth. Opportunities to volunteer in urban youth centers, tutoring programs, and health care centers have been beneficial in helping students more fully understand the lives of African American youth. Applying knowledge learned in class to the development of creative interventions has also helped students to understand this group of youth.

There are a number of resources which teachers will find useful in teaching a course on either social problems of youth or social problems of African American youth. We recommend as part of the reading list The State of American's Children, which is published each year by the Children's Defense Fund (Beacon Press). This volume is full of facts and figures pertaining to the state of all youth American and the social problems they experience. A similar resource is the government publication America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. (11) Monitoring the Future, which is an annual publication of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, is an annual report which provides longitudinal data on the drug usage of American's youth. The current census report and labor statistics, and the Department of Education are other excellent sources of information on the well-being of youth and their families. These and other resources are provided below.


Entwisle, D.R., Alexander, K.L., & Olson, L.S. (1997) Children, Schools, and Inequality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Davis, L.E. (1999) Working with African-American males: A guide to practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

McLoyd, V.C & Steinberg, L. (1998). Studying minority adolescents: Conceptual, methodological and theoretical issues. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

US. Bureau of the Census (1995). Household and Family Characteristics: March 1994. Current Population Report (Series p.20-483). Washington DC.: US. Government Printing Office.

US. Department of Education (1998). The Condition of Education: 1998. Washington DC.: US. Government Printing Office.

Other useful websites:

http://www.census.gov (U.S. Census Bureau)
http://stats.bls.gov (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
http://www.omhrc.gov (Office of Minority Health Resource Center)
http://www.teenpregnancy.org (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy)

(1) U.S. Department of Education US. Department of Education (1998). The Condition of Education: 1998. Washington DC.: US. Government Printing Office; Wilds, D.J. (2000). Minorities in Higher Education 1999-2000. Washington DC: American Council on Education.

(2) Wilds, D.J. (2000). Minorities in Higher Education 1999-2000. Washington DC: American Council on Education.

(3) Tucker, M.B. & Mitchell-Kernan, C. (1995). Marital behavior and expectations: Ethnic comparisons of attitudinal and structural correlates. In B.M. Tucker and C. Mitchell-Kernan (Eds.). The Decline in Marriage Among African-Americans (pp. 145-172). NY: Russell Sage.

(4) U.S. Bureau of the Census. Current Population Reports

(5) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System

(6) US Bureau of the Census. Current Population Reports. Marital Status and Living Arrangements, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.

(7) McLanahan, S. & Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

(8) Kempf-Leonard, K., Pope, C.E., & Feyerherm, W.H. (1995). Minorities in juvenile justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

(9) Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(10) Moore, K.A., Driscoll, A. K., & Lindberg, L.D. (1998). A Statistical Portrait of Adolescent Sex, Contraception, and Childbearing. Washington DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. .

(11) This publication can be found on line at http://www.childstats.gov.

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