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.
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.
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.
The researchers found that on an online charity site, proposals from classrooms in need that were accompanied by images of African-American teens inspired fewer donations than those with younger black children. And if you think it's just that everyone has a race-neutral soft spot for younger kids, think again. White and multiple-race classrooms got more donations if the classes were older. And very young black students actually elicited the most support of any group, but once they hit the double digits, that preference disappeared (and then some).
A companion study by the same researchers found that while all kids got pegged with more of those negative labels as they got older, the situation was worse for black kids. Small explained, "Younger kids as a group are judged harmless and warm, but there is a steeper age penalty for black kids over white kids. As African Americans grow up, they're judged more in line with stereotypes."
While the research focused on online giving to public school classrooms, Small says it would be fair to expect the same behavior when it comes to support for other charitable efforts, like mentoring, tutoring and scholarship programs. In other words, anyone raising money to help black kids — especially if those kids are at the age where they remind donors more of Chris Brown than Rudy Huxtable — likely has one more challenge than he or she bargained for.
Negative images of African-American students abound. There are the ones that are drummed up with rhetoric from outside the community — Newt Gingrich questioning black youths' very potential to develop a work ethic is the first example that comes to mind for Mark Naison, chair of Fordham University's department of African and African-American studies.
And then there are those negative images that invite themselves into our collective psyche via media that are all too eager to reinforce them. Stereotypes, quite simply, sell, Naison explains.
For Charles Gallagher, chair of LaSalle University's sociology department, the study's findings ring true. "The perception is that being a drug-dealing thug is the norm," he says. "Given this belief, individuals may be more willing to give money to children rather than teens because the thinking might be it's too late to turn the [black] teens' life around, while supporting young children can make a great difference."
But Small is quick to say that her team's findings aren't about overt prejudice or carefully crafted theories about where money can be most effectively used. Stereotypes, she says, are generally understood to be held unconsciously.
Small says that the best bet for charities that serve black kids would be to put the focus on the "really young" ones in their materials, if they want to minimize negative associations and maximize charitable contributions. It doesn't exactly get to the heart of the problem, but the numbers — in the study and in the organizations' budgets — don't lie.
Naison sees the stereotypes (the same ones that commentators believe explain why Trayvon Martin was shot by a neighborhood-watch captain, for example) that work to smother charitable giving to black teens as part of a larger problem. He advocates aggressively tearing down the negative associations through active "image management" on the part of black America — specifically, by getting a critical mass of African-American adolescents visibly involved in activities that improve their communities.
Of course, anyone can recognize the irony here: These projects are of the type that research suggests would receive fewer charitable donations because of the very stereotypes that Naison says they'd be designed to fight. "These poor young people are getting it from every side," he says. "They're being told that the only way you can be marketable is if you're a thug, but if you act on it, you're suspended. And then, if there are ideas for how to improve your community or to improve your life, it's too bad. Because everyone already has these ideas about you. Everyone's already given up on you as hopeless."
Kaila Gilbert says that she feels "kind of angry" about the study's findings, what they say about how she is perceived and what they mean for programs like the one from which she has benefited. The stereotypes strike her as "extraordinarily false."
"I've met some amazing people who have had huge accomplishments despite some things in their backgrounds that really could have held them back," she says. "And I don't think they're exceptions."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.