Stereotypes Hurt Black-Teen Programs

A study shows that bias might hinder fundraising for these organizations.


When 19-year-old Kaila Gilbert was in high school in La Vergne, Tenn., she was the exact type of kid that organizations designed to reach at-risk black teens might target. Her high school was "not particularly known for scholastic accomplishment," she delicately explains to The Root.

At one point during the recession, both of her parents lost their jobs. And while she hesitates to emphasize the negative aspects of her upbringing, she admits, "It was hard living in a household like that," and says she "probably had it a little harder than people who came from more privileged backgrounds."

Today Gilbert is thriving as a freshman at Vanderbilt University. She's still deciding between a major in English and one in public policy, but she sounds as if she already has a degree or two under her belt when you get her talking about the nuances of the African-American experience. Gilbert could easily be a spokesperson for the Ron Brown Scholar Program, which saw her potential when she was in high school and awarded her a $10,000-per-year scholarship packaged with leadership and service opportunities.

Hers is the exact kind of success story that the organization, which features beaming black teens decked out in business attire in its printed materials, would understandably love to use to drum up support.

Except, new research shows that people might not be inclined to give to organizations that help people who look like Gilbert: African-American youths past elementary school age. According to the study, the stereotypes thrust upon black teens may be working overtime to turn off potential donors to the very projects designed to support these young people.

The Research

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School found that those negative associations attached to black students (lazy, unreliable, dumb and irresponsible, to name a few) kicked in with more force as the students got older, and charitable support for them decreased at the same time.

Ron Brown Scholar Program President Michael Mallory understands that organizations like his are up against more challenges than just the ones faced every day by their beneficiaries. "From time to time I must defend the young people we work with as being the direct opposite of what society says they may become," he says. Luckily, he adds, his program has contributors of all races who "get it" and give generously.

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But the Wharton study, written up in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science, suggests that not all donors embrace that perspective. Deborah A. Small and her team call their findings "an age penalty in racial preference." What it means in the real world is this: Negative beliefs about all kids increase as they turn from adorable little ones to less angelic adolescents. But when they're black, the nasty labels pile on faster and stronger. And just as rapidly as the negative associations about them go up, charitable attitudes toward them go down.