Feb. 1, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 9

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    Empirical data show complex beliefs, attitudes and character of black youth

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Cathy Cohen

    Although African-American youth are just as politically motivated as Hispanic and white youth, believing that they have the skills to participate and can make a difference, they are skeptical of the political process, asserting that, “leaders in government care little about people like me.”

    This conclusion is the result of a new comprehensive national study of youth opinions, which also shows that black youth are more likely than Hispanics and whites to use protection during sex, are critical consumers of rap music and videos, and are more conservative in their social attitudes than other youth.

    The study, titled the Black Youth Project, was launched to provide a more comprehensive and complex perspective of African-American youth, said Cathy Cohen, leader of the project and Professor in Political Science and the College. “There has been a lot of talk about African-American youth from people like Bill Cosby. Unfortunately, most of these comments are not grounded in any type of empirical reality. Similarly, there have been a number of other studies of African-American young people, largely focused on the outcomes of their behaviors that do not include the voices and views of young black people.

    “The Black Youth Project is committed to making the ideas and attitudes of young people our central focus. By asking young people themselves about important issues like sex education, police discrimination, abortion or same-sex marriage, the Black Youth Project is able to provide data that will help build effective policies that can significantly improve the lives and prospects of young black people. This study is about research, not ranting,” said Cohen.

    The team surveyed 1,590 black, white and Hispanic youth nationwide between the ages of 15 and 25 to ask them about their sexual behaviors and attitudes, about their views on social and cultural issues, and their opinions on government and politics, as well as other topics. The researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with about 40 young black people who completed the survey.

    On political issues, the team found both hopeful and discouraging signs of political engagement among black youth. For example, the study found that 79 percent of young blacks feel that participating in politics can make a difference, a figure similar to that of Hispanics and whites. At the same time, a majority of young blacks and Hispanics agreed that leaders in government care very little about people like them.

    Similarly, nearly half (48 percent) of black young adults and adolescents agreed with the following statement: “The government treats most immigrants better than it treats most black people in this country;” while only 29 percent of white youth and 18 percent of Hispanic youth agreed.

    “Black young people are trying to reconcile two conflicting perspectives. One perspective is based in the rhetoric of the government and other institutions, which suggests that we now exist in a color-blind society where everyone is judged merely on merit. The other perspective is rooted in the reality of discrimination that confronts far too many young black people. Given their reality, it is not surprising that a majority of black respondents also said that it is hard for young black people to get ahead because they face so much discrimination,” said Cohen.

    The study also found young people embracing newer forms of political involvement. A quarter of black youth, nearly the same amount as those in the other groups, reported “buycotting” during the last 12-months (buying a product because of the company’s social or political values). Smaller but significant percentages of all young people reported signing either paper or e-mail petitions, and sending an e-mail or posting on a political blog.

    When asked about their sexual attitudes and behaviors, the team found that most young people have positive attitudes toward sex and feel relatively in control of their sexual activities. Consistent with previous studies, the overwhelming majority of young people ages 18 to 25 in each racial/ethnic group reported having had sexual intercourse. About one third of the young people ages 15 to 17 reported having sex. Among all black youth, 77 percent reported using protection every time or almost every time they had intercourse, compared with 64 percent for Hispanics and 66 percent for whites.

    A majority of young people, mostly young African Americans (76 percent), reported feeling very sure they could tell their partners what they felt comfortable doing sexually. Nearly 90 percent of young people in each ethnic and racial group felt they could convince their partners to use protection before having sex, the survey showed. More than 90 percent of all young people surveyed agreed that sex education should be mandatory in high schools.

    Young people also reported confidence in their ability to pick up on negative messages in rap music, which is listened to daily by 58 percent of black youth, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic youth and 23 percent of white youth.

    “The overwhelming majority of young people agree with the statement: ÔRap music videos contain too many references to sex,’” Cohen said. The study found that 72 percent of black and Hispanic youth agreed with the statement, which was supported by 68 percent of white youth. Similarly, the majority of all youth agree that, “rap music videos portray black women in negative and offensive ways, with black women and girls more likely to strongly agree with this statement. The study showed that 62 percent of black youth, 54 percent of Hispanic youth and 62 percent of white youth think rap music videos are degrading to black women.

    On social issues, the surveys found that African-American young people are more likely to agree that homosexuality is always wrong (55 percent for blacks, 36 percent for Hispanics and 35 percent for whites). A majority of African-American youth also opposed legalizing same-sex marriages, (58 percent for blacks, 36 percent for Hispanics and 35 percent for whites).

    More information about the survey is available at http://blackyouthproject.com.

    The Ford Foundation financed the Black Youth Project. The data was gathered by the National Opinion Research Center.