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N.C. State Professor Looks Closely At Racial Stress, Critical Consciousness In Black Youth

Chandra Mackey, 2021 Senior Class President, St. Augustine's University.
Leoneda Inge
Chandra Mackey, 2021 Senior Class President, St. Augustine's University.

More than 80% of young Black people say they engaged in some form of social justice activism in the last year, according to research conducted by Dr. Elan Hope of NC State University.

Last Saturday was a picture perfect day for a socially distant commencement exercise at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh.

"Now more than ever, the world is waiting for your brilliance and your vigilance," said Dr. Christine McPhail, St. Augustine's president. "Your generation has experienced unprecedented challenges around economic and social injustice in this country. But your decision to find this chapter of your education journey here with us signifies that the best in each of you is yet to come.”

McPhail probably didn’t have to remind the young people about all the social injustice they’ve endured during the pandemic. They lived it. And many marched in protest of it.

Right before students walked across the stage to grab their degrees, St. Aug's conferred honorary doctoral degrees. One of those went to Civil Rights Attorney Ben Crump.

You may know the name Crump. He has represented several families in high-profile cases where Black people were killed by police officers or vigilantes – from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd. And most recently Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City.

Crump thanked students for keeping up the fight.

“Because you all Tweeted. You all posted. You all marched," he said. "You all continued to fight in the court of public opinion for not only George Floyd. Not only for Breonna Taylor. And now you’re fighting for Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City to have those videos released. And I want it documented, Madame President, Justice Perry, that without you young people, marching with the activists, there is no way that we would have achieved justice in Minneapolis, without you being my co-counsels. Where in that landmark verdict where Derek Chauvin was found guilty of torturing George Floyd to death. Guilty, guilty, guilty. It was because of all of you.”

Indeed, Crump could not have done it without his “co-counsels.” And he's right. It takes activist-minded young folks to bring change. It's too bad that, for Black youth, this activism usually comes after some blatant act of racism.

Dr. Elan Hope is an Associate Professor of Psychology at N.C. State University and is one of the authors of the study, “Relations Between Racial Stress and Critical Consciousness for Black Adolescents.”

I spoke with Dr. Hope about how the ties between racism and activism of Black youth comes in many forms. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

"We see (it) across individual experiences like micro aggressions, more micro aggressions (leads to) more activism. We see it in terms of structural racism. So maybe being followed in stores or being overlooked for a position or an assignment, more structural racism (means) more action. In my research we have tried to figure out more about that, particularly for Black youth."

"Why do they get involved? Who is involved? What does involvement mean? And especially how does racism and the stress from experiencing racism impact what young people do or don't do in terms of social justice change?"

Dr. Elan Hope
NC State University
Dr. Elan Hope

When you started this, there wasn't a whole lot of other research to help you, was there? I mean, that link between that injustice and someone moving into fighting for justice.

"What my work has been centered in is also kind of the critical consciousness notion. If you understand systems of oppression, and are educated, you can then challenge those systems, you understand the game. And so now you can figure out if and how you want to play or destroy the game, right? So building off of the work of other researchers, I started to try to collect data to answer some of those theoretical questions."

Because of the times that we're in, I'm sure there's a lot going through their minds.

"From past movements, we know that experiencing racism leads to action. We ask students: what types of activism have you done in the past year, and only 18% of our sample had not done anything."

"The most common thing that people in our sample were doing was seeking information. And so we include information seeking as a part of activism, getting informed about the issues. The next most popular thing was following social and political causes on social media."

"The least common were the more dangerous and risky involvements. So only 7% had blocked a public area with their body in protest, or participated in something - maybe an illegal activity as part of a protest. And almost 2% had done all of them."

Your research also looked at aspects of mental health, and I was wondering, does activism help? Or perhaps does it exacerbate the stress for young people?

"We found for Black college students who are doing the most activism, and also experiencing a lot of discrimination, their stress was particularly high. That was concerning and really pointing me to: Okay, we need to understand a little bit more about what's at stake. Racism is stressful, but also activism and seeking that justice and facing barriers to seeking justice is also stressful."

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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