Strengths of Black Youths

A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Strengths of Black Youths


Guerda NicolasJanet E. Helms Maryam M. Jernigan Theresa Sass Adrienne Skrzypek Angela M. DeSilva

Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts


The strengths of Black youths lie in their abilities to resist the barriers that they encounter in the various environments in which they exist. Yet the media and social science literature have defined the youths in terms of the pathology of their environments rather than focusing on the assets that Black youths use in such environments. Thus, terms such as inner city, urban, and at-risk are used as proxies for the youths’ personality attributes and themes, such as violence, substance abuse, school underachievement, and family instability are used to define their life experiences. In doing so, the literature suggests that the negative behaviors that it ascribes to Black youths are normative in actuality. In this article, a new framework for understanding the assets of Black youths is pro- vided. The framework highlights the role of racial socialization in the youths’ development of strengths that allow them to cope effectively with barriers.

          Keywords:   Black; youths; strengths; resistance

 There is no doubt that many Black youths in the United States face a society in which the disparities between real and ideal life conditions for themandtheircommunitiesarestark(Franklin,  2004; Harrison-Hale, McLoyd, & Smedley, 2004). The impact and effects of these disparities are exacerbated by the influence of the media in a capitalist culture that portrays them in the manner(s) that is most profitable regardless of whether such por- trayals are accurate or not. Watkins (1998) describes Black youths as getting paid for innovations in music, fashion, and film and as having their cultural products published more aggressively than have previous generations. When one considers the many positive cultural contributions of Black youths, which not only include various art forms but also a history of educational advocacy, it is particularly noteworthy that society has focused on commer- cializing presumed stereotypic aspects of their lives that allegedly include violence, substance abuse, and denigrations of Black women (Rose, 1994).



Several models of resilience exist in the literature (e.g., compensatory, risk-protective, protective-protective, and challenge; Hollister-Wagner, Foshee, & Jackson, 2001). But for the most part, these models define positive func- tioning as responses to negative (e.g., inadequate parenting, negative peer influences) or positive (e.g., supportive parenting, positive peer influences) environmental forces (Garmezy, 1991; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becke, 2000; Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990; Masten & Garmezy, 1985). In such models, the individual youth is essentially a blank entity who responds to buffeting environmental forces, most of which are negative. For example, some models of resilience have been used to predict what environmental factors (e.g., parental support, peer influence,  neighborhoodcharacteristics)  prevent youths from engaging in risky health and mental health behaviors, such as sexual activities, substance abuse, and school disengagement. Missing is a sense of the youths’ active participation in determining who they become.

Missing from the dialogue about Black youths is recognition of their capacities to function effectively from adolescence to adulthood regardless of the diversity of the environments in which they have socialized. On the one hand are Black youths who do not grow up in violent or economically deprived environments but still must function in a variety of social contexts that expect the worst of them. On the other hand are Black youths who have socialized in substandard physical environments but still manage to develop effective life skills (Franklin, 1989, 2004). It is likely that most Black youths fall into one of these two functional categories, although contemporary societal mythology does not recognize their existence.

AUTHORS’ NOTE: Please address all correspondence regarding this article to Guerda Nicolas, Department of Counseling, Developmental, & Educational Psychology, Lynch School of Education, Campion Hall 305B, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467; e-mail: 

JOURNAL OF BLACK PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 34 No. 3, August 2008 261-280 DOI: 10.1177/0095798408316794

© 2008 The Association of Black Psychologists






Fatima Hafiz MuidComment