Experiences with Racial Discrimination

One of the major challenges faced by racial/ethnic minority groups in the United States is the experience of discrimination. By discrimination, we mean negative or harmful behavior toward a person because of his or her membership in a particular racial/ethnic group (Jones, 1997). Our focus is the perception of bias and harmful treatment because of one’s race rather than actual (documented) discrimination in the legal sense. Despite the economic, political, and social gains of the past 50 years for people of color, experiences with racial discrimination continue to be quite prevalent in contemporary America. Survey data reveal that at least two-thirds of African Americans report that they have been discriminated against in a one-year period (Broman, Mavaddat, and Hsu, 2000; Pager and Shepherd, 2008) and that middle-class samples are just as likely to be targets of racial discrimination as their economically disadvantaged counterparts (Feagin, 1991; Cose, 1993).

Personal interactions experienced as racially discriminatory are part of everyday life for youth of color. Many studies now document that reported discrimination is common among ethnic minority youth in schools and in other public spaces (Kessler, Mickelson, and Williams, 1999; Rosenbloom and Way, 2004). Among the most prevalent kinds of unfair treatment reported by ethnic minority youth are receiving a lower grade than deserved from teachers, being the recipient of unusually harsh discipline from authority figures, such as school administrators and police officers, and being accused of behaving suspiciously in public places (Fisher, Wallace, and Fenton, 2000). In criminology research, a few studies have focused on adolescents’ perception of unfair treatment by police officers in particular. Net of actual police contact, African American youth perceive a high degree of police-instigated discrimination, especially when they live in more racially integrated neighborhoods (Stewart et al., 2009) or attend more racially integrated high schools (Hagan, Shedd, and Payne, 2005). Thus, regular contact with a more privileged racial group (whites) can heighten black youth’s awareness of and sensitivity to perceived police discrimination. More recently, the research has zeroed in on how a youth’s experiences help to shape and form perceptions about the police. Lee and colleagues in two different studies showed that youth with a stronger sense of ethnic identity perceived more police discrimination but also reported more positive beliefs about police legitimacy (Lee, Steinberg, and Piquero, 2010; Lee et al., 2011).

Consequences of Perceived Discrimination

Discrimination can take its toll on the mental, physical, social, and academic well-being of youth. Its adverse effects have been examined in

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