2021 LIN LECTURE: Black Youth Respond with Resilience to the Challenges of COVID-19, Racism, and Virtual Learning

March 26, 2021 @ 7:46 pm
By Communications Office

Black families have been hit hard by the events of the past year. How have Black youth coped? For this year’s Lin Lecture, Dr. Sheretta Butler-Barnes shared some encouraging research findings.

On February 17, Dr. Sheretta Butler-Barnes, a leading developmental psychologist and quantitative methodologist and an associate professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, delivered the Alice P. Lin Memorial Lecture on the impact of the dual stressors of COVID-19 and experiences of racism on Black youth’s well-being and virtual learning.

She opened her remarks by playing Marvin Gaye’s iconic soul anthem “What’s Going On,” explaining that the way the song opens with a conversation—a casual interplay of voices asking “What’s happening? What’s up?”—strikes the perfect note for investigating the pandemic’s effects on Black teens in the United States. The same kind of searching and open-ended inquiry, and emphasis on attention and social connection, is what is called for in this moment, she said.

Butler-Barnes is known for her research on the impact of racism and the use of culturally strength-based assets on the educational and health outcomes of Black American youth. Her work focuses on how Black youth draw on individual and cultural assets and resources to thrive, despite challenges to their identities from structural, individual, and cultural racism. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she has been defining and measuring the coping mechanisms Black youth have developed to handle the extraordinary challenges posed by the transition to online education, the huge increase in white supremacist propaganda, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their families’ health and finances.

In her introduction to the lecture, Dean Melissa Begg said: “Dr. Butler-Barnes’s important work is receiving increasing attention nationally for both its rigor and its promise in pointing to an actionable path forward to improve education and health outcomes for Black Americans.”

Dr. Butler-Barnes began by noting that although anti-Black racism and other systemic barriers are nothing new—“Black families have faced insurmountable stressors since 1619″—she has purposely chosen not to approach this topic with an emphasis on deficits (what she calls “gap-gazing”). Instead she applies a strength-based lens to identify two important factors associated with the resiliency shown by Black youth during this public health crisis:

  1. The strength of the young person’s connections with adults who are mentor figures (helpful even when restricted to virtual conversations).
  2. The number of incidents of racist messages a young person encounters online.

She further noted that many Black students have been engaging in political activism as a way to mitigate some of the negative effects of exposure to anti-Black racism and enhance their sense of self-efficacy. “Black activism serves as a coping mechanism in resisting inequalities,” she said.

Here, too, relationships with adults make a difference. Students who encountered a great deal of racist messaging but had a low number of quality interactions with adults were more likely to engage in high-risk activism that could result in their being harmed or arrested, she noted. But students with stronger ties to adults were more likely to pursue low-risk forms of activism, such as wearing a button with a message on it or correcting someone who made a racist statement. Her research suggests that the important adults in these students’ lives may have discouraged them from engaging in high-risk activities, possibly because of the adults’ own experiences.

While worries about COVID, racism, and family can have a detrimental impact on school performance, Butler-Barnes said she had observed many Black students developing a sense of themselves as competent, hopeful problem-solvers, even in a virtual setting.

Butler-Barnes concluded her remarks with a set of recommendations for social workers and educators working with Black adolescents:

  • Center the youth voice.
  • Give young people a chance to talk about their worry and isolation.
  • Create intentional space for Black youth to thrive and be successful.
  • Get rid of power dynamics in sharing resources.
  • Give teens an opportunity to shape the curriculum.

She suggested that practitioners use active listening in the style of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit song: “Go into a space and ask, ‘How’s it going? What’s going on? Let youth guide the discussion. Then provide solutions and resources.'”

Associate Professor Desmond Patton, who is well known for his pioneering work on social media activity among gang-involved youth, moderated the Q&A. He expressed appreciation for Butler-Barnes’s research, saying: “You bring about this awareness that our young people are living their lives online, and that there is an agentic quality to relationships that can empower our young people for change in activism in a way that is therapeutic.”

Made possible by a generous gift from Dr. Nan Lin in honor of his wife, Dr. Alice P. Lin (MSW’78, DSW’85), the annual Dr. Alice P. Lin Memorial Lecture addresses research, issues, and trends in public policy and administration.