Study Sheds Light on Attitudes of Black Youth

A new study focuses specifically on the beliefs and actions of African-Americans age 15 to 25. The study's lead researcher, University of Chicago political science professor Cathy Cohen, discusses the findings with Tony Cox. Also joining the conversation: Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip-Hop Generation.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya, who is on vacation.

We've got new data about the beliefs and attitudes of black youth between the ages of 15 to 25. A study called the Black Youth Project looked at the opinions of just under 1,600 black, white and Hispanic young people around the nation. What lead researcher Cathy Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, concluded just might surprise you.

Ms. Cohen joins me now along with Bakari Kitwana, author of the book "The Hip-Hop Generation," to discuss these findings. Cathy, let's start with you.

Professor CATHY COHEN (Political Science, University of Chicago): Sure.

COX: You tackled a number of important issues in the study. And I said that people might be surprised by your conclusions. First off, were you?

Prof. COHEN: I was somewhat surprised. I mean at this point we've been talking or at least this administration has been talking about, for example, exporting democracy, a color-blind society, the end of affirmative action.

And these young people, and particularly the young black people, in the study say hold on a minute. That in fact discrimination and racism is very real in their lives. That it's a hinder to their progress. That it impacts their schooling. And that somebody needs to take note of this.

COX: So how would you sum up then the significance of what your findings were?

Prof. COHEN: Well, I think first of all it's significant because in fact it suggests that we need to listen to young people. I think there are lots of folks who are willing to talk about young black people and fewer who are willing to listen to young black people.

Second, I think it signals that in fact there's both possibility and there are difficulties for young black people. One of the things that we found is that overwhelmingly young black Americans say that they want to participate in politics, that they have the skills to participate in politics.

But at the same time, they believe in fact that the leaders in government care very little about them. That in fact the government is ran for just, you know, a few big interests. So, I think it points to both the kind of the duality of their lives - that they understand the rhetoric of a color-blind open society but they also understand the reality that they face, which includes police discrimination, it includes sub-par schooling, it includes double the unemployment than that of young whites. And they're saying in fact that this country has to do better by them.

COX: Let me bring Bakari into the conversation. What struck you about these studies, about this study's findings?

Mr. BAKARI KITWANA (Author, "The Hip-Hop Generation"): I think the study confirmed a lot of the ideas that we've been talking about regarding young people and hip-hop. One of the important things that I think comes through in the study is that it demonstrates that young people have a moral center.

And I think that much of the national conversations around the Bill Cosby commentary or things that Wynton Marsalis or Spike Lee or Stanley Crouch have said about young people and hip-hop. You would think that they're not concern about the images and representations that we're getting from corporate media on programs like BET and MTV. And so, I think it's striking to hear from young people themselves that these images are disturbing and they see them as stereotypical and degrading.

COX: And here's a question for the both of you. You've partly answered how black youth are seen by society today, giving some examples, Bakari, that you just did and talking about the media's role in determining that. How might this study, let's say, change that perception? Bakari, you first.

Mr. KITWANA: Well, I think that the study provides evidence that young people are concerned about how they're viewed. I think it flies in the face of popular - one of the interesting things about the study is that it centers the idea that young people are marginalized in American society.

I think we are at this point in America where we talk about race and inequality as though there aren't these differences. And so, I think having these differences pointed out and having young people talk about these ideas I think reinforces the idea that there's still a lot of work to be done.

COX: Cathy, do you see the study being able to change perceptions along this line?

Prof. COHEN: Well, I'm hoping that in fact it will. I think what we found is that young black people are complex, that they are thoughtful about, you know, the world in which they live, and that in fact we need to listen to them. One of the things that kept coming up in some of the interviews we did is that they understand that many of the policies that are most controversial in this country are directed disproportionately at them.

For example, questions around mass incarceration or disparities in education. And what's I think striking is that very few people, and particularly policy makers and politicians, ever ask young people in fact what they think about these policies. What works and what doesn't work?

So hopefully with this data people can step back for a minute and say that maybe in fact we need to be engaged in dialogue with young black people who have a sense of the country, of their needs and their concerns and in fact what we might do to make their lives better.

COX: Cathy, you mentioned the interviews that were conducted, as I understand it, all of them or most of them were conducted in the Midwest. Is that right?

Prof. COHEN: That is true. One of the things that - I'm sorry.

COX: Before you go on, let me just say, doesn't that automatically skew the result? And why did you choose the Midwest to do that?

Prof. COHEN: Boy, you could be a statistician here. Here's what we decided to do. We did a national survey of young people. So it's a representative survey so we can talk about the kind of the statistics without being compromised and we can say this is what young black people think.

But one of the things we wanted to do is to get greater depth in our understanding of the answers. And to do that, we went into the field. We would, say, went into five cities and interviewed African-American respondents to the survey. Now in no way is that representative, but it does give us a kind of clear sense of what young people were thinking when they answered some of the questions.

COX: Bakari, do you think that there were important issues - I want to put you on the spot a little bit here - that perhaps were not covered in the study that you think should have, that would have been even more reflective of what the hip-hop generation is thinking?

Mr. KITWANA: That's a good question. I mean I think one of the things that's interesting to me about the study that I think is the study points to young people between the ages of 15 and 25. Much of our conversation about the hip-hop generation has been about people who are a little bit older than that.

So I think one of the interesting things about the study is we're starting to now see a second generation, what many people are referring to as the millennium generation, that are affected by similar issues. So it's now a second generation being caught up in the same feeling of being outcast in American society.

So I mean - I think for me it would have been interesting to see both of those generational views side by side. But I think it's equally important to see this second generation influenced by hip-hop, or this millennium generation - people born after 1985, let's say, who are being caught up in the same crisis as the first hip-hop generation were caught up in.

COX: That's an interesting point that you raise. Obviously, there have to be some limits placed on any study. Otherwise, you would never get anything done. But at the same time, Cathy, he's right, isn't he, from the standpoint that the hip-hop generation is getting older? They're 30-somethings now a lot of times.

Prof. COHEN: That's right.

COX: And, you know, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds are a completely different group.

Prof. COHEN: I think Bakari is absolutely right. One of the things we tried to do in kind of constructing the study is to give us enough range that we could talk about the attitudes of 15 to 17-year-olds versus the attitudes of 22- to 25-year-olds. And if people are able to go to our Web site, they can see some of the data broken down by age group, as well as, some people might say, by generation.

Another thing I might add is, you know, one of the things we want to do in the future is to look more closely at the differences between young black women and young black men with an understanding that they have very different experiences in the world - both suffer oppression, but often in different manifestations. So there's still lots to do with this data that we're hoping to do.

COX: You mentioned gender. I want to mention something else and get you to respond to that, Cathy. And it's this: What role do you think that economics or class in particular play in all this? For example, did the kids from the intercity respond any differently in the study to kids from the suburbs or from rural areas?

Prof. COHEN: Absolutely. Class is a huge factor here. There's a question, for example, that says: Do you think that your neighborhood suffers a great deal or, you know, has a great big problem with things like gangs, drugs, crime, violence? And one of the things we know is that young people who come from neighborhoods or at least they perceive themselves coming from neighborhoods where this is a major problem - crime, or drugs, or gangs - they think very differently than young black people who don't come from those types of neighborhoods. So class is a major factor in determining these attitudes and these opinions.

COX: Bakari, when you heard about this study, what was your reaction to the fact that there was even a study being done? And do you think that this will lead to additional kinds of research in this area?

Mr. KITWANA: I was really excited because I think it's very forward thinking. I think we don't have enough research done on this age group of young people. Often, far too often, (unintelligible) last 10 or 15 years because of the economic success of hip-hop, we only get market research on young black people as consumers or we talk about them as problems.

And so I think that definitely the study will encourage other researchers to do more work in this area, because I think it's opened up the idea and a lot of excitement that there's a possibility that this can be done and that you can get support for this kind of research. And I think that before people just didn't feel they'll get support and/or they just didn't see it as significant. And I think the discussions that have happened nationally around this study, even in just the last week, are an indication that there is a great interest in this type of material.

COX: We've got about a minute left, Cathy. I'm going to bring the last question to you. How difficult was it to put this together and how optimistic are you about using it as a foundation for future research?

Prof. COHEN: Well, the difficulties probably stem from securing funding. And I'm very happy to say that the Ford Foundation stepped up and provided funding for the study. The optimistic part has everything to do with also constructing the study. I had the chance to work with probably 12 to 15 outstanding graduate students, most of them young people of color who were very committed to making sure that we built a survey and a study that would serve the needs and highlight the voices of young black people.

So both kind of constructing the study and the data that has been produced from the study make me optimistic about the ways in which, if we just listen to young black people, they have real solutions and a clear sense of what the future needs to be.

And hopefully in the last 10 seconds I can direct your listeners to go to our Web site, which is blackyouthproject.com; that's all one word. And they can download much of the material we've been talking about. Use it in their classrooms and their homes, and hopefully contact policy makers about changes that need to happen in the lives of young black people.

COX: You did it in 10 seconds. Thank you very much. Cathy Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, lead researcher on the Black Youth Project. Bakari Kitwana, author of the book "The Hip-hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture." Thank you both for being with us today.

Prof. COHEN: Thank you.

Mr. KITWANA: Thank you.

COX: Just ahead, mixed messages on the Hill regarding the Iraq War. We'll sort out the latest. And new unemployment figures show blacks doing better. Plus, we'll do some Monday morning quarterbacking about the Super Bowl.

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