New study of African American families in Iowa, Georgia shows early exposure to racism is common, but can be countered by strong family support

AMES, Iowa -- A majority of African American children in Iowa and Georgia report experiencing some racial discrimination by age 11. However, strong community, family and extended family relationships tend to blunt the potential negative impact of those experiences, according to researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Georgia.

Carolyn Cutrona, director of Iowa State's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research and professor of psychology; Rick Gibbons, professor of psychology at Iowa State; and Ron Simons, professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, Athens, are in the third stage of a study of black families, initiated in 1995.

The study follows 900 African American families; approximately half of who live in Iowa and half in Georgia. The families have diverse educational and socioeconomic backgrounds ranging from below the poverty line to more than $200,000 annually. The study focuses on factors that influence the mental and physical health of black families.

"This is the largest study ever conducted with African American families assessed repeatedly over time," Cutrona said. "There are very few longitudinal (long term) studies of African American communities. As we begin our fourth round of interviews with the group, we have retained more than 90 percent of the original participants over eight years -- a very high rate for this type of study."

The average age of the children when the study began was 10. Those children are now 18 years old.

In one component of the study, Gibbons and co-researcher Meg Gerrard, professor of psychology at Iowa State, looked at how experiences with racial discrimination affect black families, especially their health behavior.

"Discrimination is the strongest predictor of drug and alcohol use in our sample, even when controlling for other factors usually associated with use, such as financial problems, availability of substances in the neighborhood, and negative life events (e.g., loss of a job)," Gibbons said. "Those participants who reported a great deal of exposure to prejudice were four times more likely than the rest of the sample to abuse drugs or alcohol."

However, a positive home-environment or a positive role model at home -- in the form of an older sibling who is not abusing substances -- buffers against even strong peer pressure to begin using, Gibbons said.

Another important factor is effective parenting. High involvement and nurturing by parents counter social pressures to use drugs and alcohol.

"This finding is significant because researchers have had difficulty identifying factors of any kind that protect a child from risk if others in the immediate environment are involved in risky behaviors," Gibbons said.

In spite of the stress associated with racial discrimination, black children tend to use drugs and drink less than whites, Gibbons said. That's largely due to the support and strength of the African American family.

Ron Simons and his colleagues at the University of Georgia also have investigated the impact of perceived discrimination on child adjustment. Their findings indicate that being the victim of discrimination and living in a community where discrimination is highly prevalent increase a child's risk for depression.

Discrimination also increases the likelihood that children will develop angry, hostile views of people and increases the chances that they will engage in delinquent behaviors, especially acts of violence.

"Our results suggest that warm and supportive parents are able to soothe the feelings of frustration, anger and depression that children often experience in response to racist treatment," Simons said.

Since its start in 1995, the project has received more than $17 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers hope to extend the study another five years to follow the children as they enter adulthood. Former Iowa State sociology professor Rand Conger initiated the study. Conger is now a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.