Black Americans Develop Mental Resilience to Discrimination Early

By the time they reach adulthood, Blacks in the U.S. may have coping skills that their white counterparts lack

A survey of people aged 18-28 suggests that young white men may be more sensitive to or less resilient against the effects of perceived discrimination than young Black men and women.

In a study published June 24, the researchers pulled data from a University of Michigan survey of young adults, called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Transitioning to Adulthood Supplement, to compare the effects of everyday discrimination on mental health among 3,894 people aged 18 to 28.

Each participant answered questions about how often they perceived various forms of bias or mistreatment in their everyday lives, ranging from getting poor customer service in stores or restaurants to feeling like their intelligence or trustworthiness was being questioned.

The majority of young adults surveyed said they found themselves in situations like these at one time or another. Among those who experienced such incidents, Black men and women reported facing them more often than whites, at least once a week.

Each participant also answered questions about their mental well-being, such as how often they felt sad, nervous, hopeless, or worthless. The results suggest that, by the time people emerge from their teen years, even seemingly small snubs, if left unchecked, can have negative effects on mental health.

“Everyday discrimination -- or even just the perception of it -- can have real implications,” Smith said.

Overall, people who felt treated with less courtesy, respect, or trust had higher levels of anxiety and depression. But the mental health effect was lower for Blacks than whites, particularly white men. In other words, whites found being on the receiving end of such experiences more psychologically distressing.

“This is not to say that discrimination is more harmful for white men,” Smith said.

Rather, the findings indicate that white young adults may be less resilient than their Black counterparts, or less able to recover mentally and emotionally when such things do occur.

It may be that such experiences are more distressing to whites who interpret them to mean that their place in the social hierarchy is threatened. This is what’s known as “status threat.”

The difference in resilience between Blacks and whites may also be due to differences in exposure, the researchers said.

“Discrimination is considered a social stress,” Smith said. That stress may be more debilitating to people who haven’t dealt with it as much or lack the tools to manage it.

Whereas for Blacks, certain forms of discrimination are more of an everyday reality. “It's not a new stressor,” Read said.

By the time they’re young adults, Blacks may have developed strategies to recognize and respond to perceived unfairness that whites lack.

To be clear, “discrimination hurts everybody,” Read added. “Whether you're white, Black, male or female, the effects of the discrimination on mental well-being are taxing.”

What this study shows is “the psychological effects of discrimination start to emerge early in life,” Smith said. But also, "some people develop coping mechanisms that can buffer the effects, at least in the short-term.”

CITATION: "Racial and Gender Differences in Discrimination and Psychological Distress Among Young Adults," Imari Z. Smith and Jen’nan G. Read. Social Science & Medicine, June 24, 2024. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2024.117070