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date: 03 December 2022

Culturally Responsive Practice With African American Youthfree

Culturally Responsive Practice With African American Youthfree

  • Husain LateefHusain LateefAssistant Professor Department of Social Work Washington University of St. Louis
  •  and Dominique HortonDominique HortonDoctoral student, Department of Social Work, Washington University in St.Louis


Although scholars in the applied social sciences and allied professions have paid increasing attention to many of the disparities experienced by African American youth, very few efforts have been made to increase awareness of how culturally responsive practice can inform prevention and intervention efforts with this population. In response, the authors present an overview of cultural factors among African American youth, including information on their ancestral heritage, language, and known findings from culturally responsive interventions, to establish guideposts for next steps required to advance practice within social work. Subsequently, the authors conclude by sharing implications for continued research with communities and preliminary steps for social work practitioners that work with African American youth and their families.


  • Children and Adolescents

This article is an explanatory overview of the unique factors that underlie culturally responsive practice with African American youth. As a hallmark, the social work profession ethically mandates its workforce toward the responsibility of demonstrating

awareness and cultural humility by engaging in critical self-reflection (understanding their own bias and engaging in self-correction), recognizing clients as experts of their own culture, committing to lifelong learning, and holding institutions accountable for advancing cultural humility.

More, accreditation standards for social work education training programs (i.e., Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work programs) require students to demonstrate an understanding of how

diversity and difference characterize and shape the human experience and are critical to the formation of identity. The dimensions of diversity are understood as the intersectionality of multiple factors including but not limited to age, class, color, culture, disability and ability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, marital status, political ideology, race, religion/spirituality, sex, sexual orientation, and tribal sovereign status. Social workers understand that, as a consequence of difference, a person's life experiences may include oppression, poverty, marginalization, and alienation as well as privilege, power, and acclaim. Social workers also understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and recognize the extent to which a culture's structures and values, including social, economic, political, and cultural exclusions, may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create privilege and power.

Therefore, an understanding of how competing worldviews, group-level experiences, and nonuniversal cultural factors affect communities of African descent is imperative for social workers so that they can fulfill their ethical responsibilities as delineated by standards of practice when working with African American youth. For this reason, the authors provide important context to how the intersection of youth development in the racialized historical environment of the United States and system-level disparities and culture inform the lived experiences of African American youth. By applying an Afrocentric framework that emphasizes the strengths of African American populations, the authors also review the current state of culturally responsive interventions with African American youth. The authors conclude by providing implications for social work education, research, and practice.

African American Ethnic Identity Terminology

Using the term “African American” to define youth of African descent comes from a movement within American history where people of African descent, who were characterized mainly by labels reflecting negative racial beliefs, fought for a group identity term to represent their cultural and racial pride, dignity, and pursuit of equality within American society. Preference for the term African is well-documented back to the 1790 census record among free persons of African descent. Individuals in Northern states used the term to evoke pride in their ethnic origins, and it was subsequently used in a majority of early African American organizational titles, such as the 1790 Free African Society of Philadelphia that became the African Methodist Church, the Free African School, and the 1775 Prince Hall Freemasonry African Lodge (Shujaa & Shujaa, 2015). During the 1960s, the Black Power movement elevated the term “Black” as part of the self-definition for people of African descent in America, evoking a sense of pride and a removal of shame for their Blackness in skin tone and their related African features and history. This elevation was also a shedding of the acceptance of terms invented during the 19th century by White people, such as “colored” and “negro,” to describe them (Shujaa & Shujaa, 2015). During the 1960s, literary scholars like Moore (1992) and social activists like King (2010) began championing the usage of terminology such as “Afro-African” to recognize the dual influences of cultural identity: African heritage and American experiences. During the late 1980s, the usage of “Afro-American” began to decline, and Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a change from “Afro-American” to “African American” with a similar goal of creating a cultural identification (Martin, 1991). While the United States’ census uses “Black” or “African American” to refer to any person whose origins are in any of the proposed Black racial groups of Africa there is a significant degree of heterogeneity in how the terms Black American and African American are used as both racial and ethnic identity terms among African American youth. Regional, socio-economic, ethnicity differences, and family immigration periods contribute significantly to choices of which terminology to use (Blyden, 2019; Painter, 2006; Stuckey, 2013).

Current Census Data and Population Trajectories

African American youth account for approximately 24.2% of the total U.S. population and approximately 13.2% of the total youth population (Frey, 2021), which is a modest decline (close to 700,000 individuals) between the years 2000 and 2020. The largest proportion of Black youth reside in Southern and mid-Atlantic states, with the highest proportions occurring in Washington, DC (51.2%), Mississippi (40.9%), Louisiana (35.5%), Georgia (32.7%), and Maryland (29.85%) (Frey, 2021). This population concentration is due in part to the migration of the African American population back to the South after 1970, which is an ongoing trend (Tamir, 2021).

Thematic Cultural Values and Expression(s)

The culture of African American youth contains many heterogeneous and dynamic components that intersect with regional developments and populace immigration, as well as socioenvironmental and cultural factors. Consequently, statements that lead to overarching generalizations of what constitutes African American and or Black American culture are questionable. However, scholars, particularly those who have argued for more strength-based approaches that align with Afrocentric and social work values, have identified important areas of culture that have not been sufficiently recognized in the past when describing cultural contours of the population. They refer specifically to the role of African ancestral connections, family structures, language, religiosity, and collectivism.

African Ancestral Connections

Black American children with deep connections to the antebellum South and Caribbean immigrants from the 1920s and after the 1960s tend to have roots in West and Central Africa, a characteristic they share with recent immigrants from continental West Africa (Gates & Yacovone, 2013). During forced African migration to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade (i.e., Maafa) from the 1600s to the early 1800s, brought a great number of Africans with deep ancestral connection to ethnic-linguistic speakers from Akan, Igbo, Fon, and Bantu groups. These populations had a profound impact on the development of Black America, influencing the course of epistemological renderings of biblical-religious interpretations, church practices (e.g., ring shout), modes of enslavement resistance, and perceptions of family formation priorities (Holloway, 1990). Today, many African American children continue to engage in ancestral memory through community-based cultural events, Afrocentric afterschool programs, and holiday celebrations that reflect deep-structural African values and mores (Gilbert et al., 2009; Whaley & McQueen, 2004). Recent reports have also identified that African American parents have a great deal of concern about the retention of ancestral memory among their children and how African history is not incorporated into public school education (Cronin et al., 2022; Shapiro, 2019; Shujaa, 1992).

Collectivism in Orientation

Collectivism within African American culture reflects the keen focus of well-being in connection with others who are perceived as “belonging,” emphasizing the maintenance of harmony within the group context. Collectivism is a deep structural retention within African American culture that stems from its African roots (Kambon, 2012). The importance of collectivism within indigenous African philosophy, particularly among Niger-Congo linguistics speakers, is reflected within the Nguni expression Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu—a person is a person because of other people (Chigangaidze & Chinyenze, 2022). This statement addresses a core axiom of many indigenous African psychological identity conceptualizations that contributed to African American culture; it places priority on (a) connections to interpersonal relationships, (b) prioritization of shared resources as opposed to individual competition, (c) shared suffering during times of hardship, and (d) shared victory during times of resilience and achievement (Karenga, 1989; Martin & Martin, 2003). Among many contemporary African American families, and subsequently African American youth, collectivism orientation is reflected through strong commitment to family, extended kin, as well as what some scholars have called “fictive kin”—those who are not biological kin or kin related through intimate family partnerships, but are often perceived as family members or persons of support (Stack, 1975; Taylor et al., 2022). Prior studies demonstrate that cultural assets like collectivism in African American youth may be associated with an array of positive developmental indicators, including lower levels of externalizing behaviors, depression, and anxiety, as well as greater persistence in achieving academic milestones (Graves & Aston, 2018; Komarraju & Cokley, 2008; Lateef, Amoako, et al., 2022; Thomas et al., 2008).

Diversity of Family Structures

There is a general consensus of data to support that the families of youth are the most proximal systems of influence on children and youth (e.g., Catalano et al., 2002; Shek et al., 2019), and this is also true for African American youth. However, a general level of diversity in structure, sense of familial belonging, and residency with African American families are important contexts for culturally responsive social work practice. For many African American families, the family structure extends beyond those typical within classical Western theories of families as groupings based on common residence, with one male and female who have a sexual relationship and cohabit as the head of household, with their offspring included in their household (Murdock, 1949). African American families include immediate, extended, and fictive kin who all play central interpersonal roles in the lives of many African American children. While many African American children do live in nuclear two-parent home structures that are traditionally Western-associated, recent data continue to reflect that they are more likely than white or Hispanic children to live in nuclear households that are mother led (Harris & Graham, 2014), live in homes with one or more grandparent (Baker et al., 2008), and in the event of child-welfare involvement, are more likely to be placed in kinship care (Washington et al., 2013). Contrary to popular belief, African American children in mother led homes are more likely to have noncustodial father engagement than other youth populations (Ellerbe et al., 2018). African American fathers, including those who are nonresidential, see fatherhood as an important component of their identity, actively engage in their children’s development, and report a desire to be part of their children’s lives (Burns & Caldwell, 2016; Jones & Mosher, 2013). The family dynamics of African American children have often been viewed as negatives for them but should actually be seen as dimensions of cultural strengths. In cases where support may be needed, families can often provide the support necessary to achieve successful developmental outcomes for youth from this population (Logan, 2018).

African American Language

Language is a core expression within all human cultures; it serves as a conduit to communicate customs, beliefs, and values that foster one’s sense of ethnic cultural identity and related regard (Ting-Toomey & Dorjee, 2018). The study of African American language (AAL) began during the 20th century with works such as Turner’s (1949) Africanisms in the Gullah dialect and Vass’s (1979) The Bantu speaking heritage of the United States providing some of the earliest contributions that acknowledged the dynamism of cultural continuity between people who had been enslaved Africans in North America and the linguistic development that would inform AAL. However, despite some estimates that upward of 80% of African Americans speak some form of African American English (AAE) and the heavy appropriation and misrepresentations of AAE in American popular culture, the historical analysis of AAE has been somewhat marginalized as simply incorrect English (Brown & Kopano, 2014; Hollie, 2001; Williams, 1997). AAE and its usage by African Americans, particularly African American youth, is still often viewed as symptomatic of language proficiency issues instead of as an indication of cultural expressiveness. However, Williams (1997), Hilliard (1992, 1997), and others have postulated that the people who are given the power to define how human speech becomes classified as language affect what is defined as language. Social workers should be keen to engage in the debate of AAE from a position that promotes the perspectives of marginalized voices, i.e., those engaged with African American centered linguistics. This linguistic field suggests that AAE does, in fact, have a collection of words, idioms, contextualization, and communicative depth among its community of derivative and thus should be respected as a valid means of communication. The usage of AAE by African American youth has an array of unique features that reflect its derivatives from Standard English, West-Central African languages, and Afro-American pidgin and creole that were spoken through different time periods and regions in the United States. Some notable features, including those identified by Belgrave and Allison (2018) and those found in works by Smitherman (1991), Washington (1996), and Wheeler (2008) include:


The use of the Be to express habitual action: He be playing versus Standard American English (SAE) : He is constantly playing.


The absence of an explicit auxiliary verb in verbal expression (i.e., Null or Zero Copula): She my mom versus the SAE equivalent: She is my mom.


Use of the word been with stress to convey the remote past: He been finished his homework versus the ASE equivalent: He finished his homework some time ago.


Pronoun usage to repeat the subject for emphasis: John he lost 40 pounds! versus the SAE equivalent: John lost 40 pounds!


Possession by context and juxtaposition: She stay near my aunt house versus the SAE equivalent: She lives near my aunt’s house.


Voidance of standard English subject-verb agreement between expressive statements: What do this mean? versus SAE equivalent: What does this mean?


Multiple negation: He can’t buy no house versus SAE equivalent: He cannot buy a house.


Zero past tense: John he graduate a long time ago versus SAE equivalent: John graduated a long time ago.

There is a rich tradition of reclaiming AAE within African American literature (e.g., Hughes, 2020; Hurston, 2020; Walker, 2011). However, many African Americans who use AAE continue to be stigmatized (e.g., Rickford & King, 2016) and face continued use of linguistic derogatory racial expressions of contempt for African Americans by non-Black populations (e.g., Asim, 2008; King et al., 2018). This situation should be acknowledged by social workers. Consequently, while the development of general knowledge of AAE is encouraged, social workers should avoid using AAE in their responses to African American clients who are using AAE, whether adult or youth. Instead, SAE should be utilized as the lingua franca.

Religiosity and Spiritual Practices

While religiosity and spirituality play an important factor in many populations globally, some researchers have suggested that its prominence is most pronounced among African Americans (Hodge & Williams, 2002). When asking respondents in 23 different nations about the importance of God in their lives, Gallup and Castelli (1989) found African Americans had the highest scores of any group at 9.04 out of 10. More recent data demonstrate that African Americans are more religious across age groups than the general American public (Mohamed et al., 2021). Religious practice and related spiritual beliefs play a significant role across the lifespan, informing many African Americans’ social relationships, normative interactions, beliefs about coupling or romantic partnering norms, alcohol and drug use norms, sense of community, and related community engagement based on their faith and spirituality (Belgrave & Allison, 2018; Mattis & Watson, 2009). Subsequently, research has also found that religious involvement may play a central role in developing how African American youth experience the world (Butler-Barnes et al., 2019; Cole-Lewis et al., 2016).

Demographically, most African American youth are Christians, but they belong to many different denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, Baptist, Presbyterian, and many more. Islam is the second most dominant religious practice among African American families and their youth, with Orthodox Sunni Islam being most common, followed by the Nation of Islam (Belgrave & Allison, 2018; Jackson, 2005). Estimates show that more than 90% of African Americans believe in God and value their religious identity as a central part of their lives, meaning that social work practice must also be mindful of African American youth’s religious norms and beliefs to offer a culturally responsive practice (Mohamed et al., 2021).

Unique Challenges Procuring Successful Development

African American youth face a myriad of social inequity factors that hinder their successful transition from youth to established adulthood. The following section provides context for the historical devaluation of Black childhood in the United States. Context for current system bias challenges is also provided.

Historical Devaluation of Black Childhood in the United States

As described previously, the transatlantic slave trade or the African Maafa/African Holocaust disrupted the steady experiences of childhood on the continent of Africa. African children were viewed as future labor by their captors and enslavers. Children were also viewed as advantageous for transportation to the Americas because they could fit in small spaces within the ships, making room for additional bodies (Diptee, 2006; Webster, 2021). Humanizing actions such as crying and playing were restricted by enslavers. For example, there has been at least one account of a woman forced to throw her crying child overboard a slave ship during the Middle Passage (Webster, 2021).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black children were depicted as sinful or corrupt while White children were constructed as innocent, tender or angelic. In Racial innocence, Bernstein describes how the Black child was redefined as a nonchild or a “pickaninny.” The pickaninny (also picaninny or piccaninny) was a pejorative term often used to describe a youth of African descent. Characteristics of a pickaninny included dark or jet-black skin, exaggerated facial features, or as a person who devoured watermelon. They were also often portrayed as being attacked by animals such as alligators, dogs, tigers, pigs, or geese. Pickaninnies wore ragged clothes and were partially or fully naked with their genitals and buttocks exposed. While pickaninnies were often depicted outside and happily accepting or inviting violence, they would also be portrayed as well-dressed and groomed while engaging in domestic chores. When being attacked, pickaninnies were presented as ignoring danger, laughing, or yelping, but they never expressed pain or fear; they also did not sustain realistic wounds (Bernstein, 2011; Webster, 2021). The pickaninny became a major figure in US cultural history (Bernstein, 2011). A copy writer for the advertisement of the Pickaninny doll wrote:

What child in America does not at some time want a cloth “n*****” dollie—one that can be petter or thrown about without harm to the doll or anything that it comes in contact with “Pickaninny” fills all the requirements most completely.

In bestselling books such as E. W. Kemble’s A coon alphabet and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, pickaninnies were beaten, scolded, neglected, dismembered, and attacked by animals while not feeling pain (Bernstein, 2011).

Webster (2021) describes the experiences of Black children’s during the antebellum period, when orphanages and reformatories in the North admitted Black children but denied them the privileges of childhood. While White orphans were allowed to be educated and were schooled for longer periods of time, Black children became indentured servants and were only allowed play when they exhibited appropriate behavior. This era also upheld social and economic structures that precluded Black children from indoor play, play with age-appropriate objects, and adult supervision. Black children were often found playing in the streets of urban cities. Orphanages and reformatories in the North were some of the first locations where Black childhood became institutionalized in the early 19th century and served either as places of refuge or of confinement (Webster, 2021). For some children, they were protective, but for many others, these spaces served as places of familial separation, pathologization, and racial institutionalization. Administrators’ ideals of Black childhood at these institutions were often coercive in reproducing and reinforcing racial, class, and gender hierarchies, which clashed with the ideals of the Black community, which valued self-determination and autonomy (Webster, 2021). These orphanages and reformatories also became sites of violence against Black childhood as White mobs set the institutions on fire. As a part of reform movements associated with orphanages, reformatories, and opposition to slavery, many Black children that were institutionalized were indentured laborers, offering them little time for schooling. These actions conflicted with the prevailing notions about childhood during the time (Webster, 2021). In the early 20th century, although the public child welfare system was emerging as the dominant response to abuse and neglect, African American children were excluded from these services. Instead, African American children were sent to juvenile delinquent institutions and adult prisons when they were in need of care (Jimenez, 2006) due to perceptions that they needed more long-term placement (Rosner & Markowitz, 1997). While Black families and their children fought to retain their ancestral heritage, the devaluation of Black childhood that began with their forced migration to the Americas continued to permeate every system with which they interacted, a situation that has continued into the present day.

Bias in Major Systems of Youth Development


Education has served as a critical and core value for Black Americans. Learning has not only been viewed as one of the first acts toward resistance in the African American experience, but it has been historically equated with freedom and empowerment (Span & Anderson, 2005). One common theme found throughout history, albeit in different forms, is the persistent denial of access to education for African American children and their ancestors. From the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas in 1619 to the Antebellum Era, Black Americans were barred from learning to reading and write. Antiliteracy laws were born out of fears that slave education would mean freedom. States like Georgia imposed fines, public whipping, or imprisonment for anyone teaching enslaved or free Africans how to read or write. Enslaved Africans were also threatened with dismemberment if caught writing. Historians have noted that in some states even selling writing materials to Black Americans was considered a crime (Span & Anderson, 2005).

Even after slavery was abolished, preexisting slave codes and Black codes set the stage for the Jim Crow laws that existed from emancipation through the Civil Rights Movement. By 1890, only 40% of Black American adults were literate compared to 70% of White Americans (Irons, 2002). In his work, Jim Crow’s children, Peter Irons explains that the curriculum for many Black primary schools reflected the job positions available to African Americans during that time (i.e., agricultural and domestic services). By the 1930s, African American children were attending school, remaining in school longer, and earning higher scores on achievement tests, but they still lagged far behind their White counterparts. Although approximately 81% of the nation’s Black population living in the South during the 1930s, local school boards spent almost three times more on White schools than Black ones. Black teacher salaries were far less than those of White teachers. The great-grandparents of today’s school-aged Black children experienced inferior schooling that reinforced and reproduced racial subjugation and hindered social mobility (Irons, 2002).

Today, Black children continue to receive inequitable schooling on individual and structural levels. In addition to the long withstanding and well-documented achievement gaps, Black children are impacted by racism and implicit bias in the classroom. For example, Black children are more likely to receive a poor assessment of their behavior when they have a White teacher than when they have a Black teacher (Trent et al., 2019). White teachers are also more likely to predict that Black students will not finish high school or underestimate their abilities, which has been shown to lead to decreased grade point averages and fewer years of school (Cherng, 2017; Gershenson et al., 2017). African American children are also subjected to harsher punishments and more frequent suspensions and expulsions compared to their White counterparts (Latunde & Clark-Louque, 2016). Black male students in particular are suspended at much higher rates than other racial groups and are underrepresented in gifted programs, as well as honors and advanced placement courses (Little & Tolbert, 2018). Research has also shown that educators tend to associate African American girls’ behaviors with Black womanhood, i.e., they are under greater surveillance regarding their decorum, their behavior is seen as less innocent, and overall they are less likely to be seen as in need of protection, nurturing, or support (Epstein et al., 2017). This adultification of Black girls has led to not only harsher discipline, but fewer opportunities for leadership and mentorship within schools (Epstein et al., 2017).

Despite the extensive writings of Black educational psychologists and sociologists that reflect pathways of change for the education of African American youth in the United States, their equitable schooling remains a large concern for their families. These prominent Black scholars suggest that creating educational change for Black children will require society to conceptualize Black children within the context of their culture beginning in early childhood and devise educational strategies that are appropriate for them where African American culture in all of its diversity is integrated throughout their learning (Cokley & Chapman, 2008; Hale-Benson, 1986; Hilliard, 1997, Lemons-Smith, 2008; Shujaa, 1992; Tatum, 2003). They also bring to the forefront the importance of acknowledging racism and how current schooling mechanisms, practices and actors intentionally perpetuate and maintain society’s existing power relations and institutional structures (Ewing, 2018; Lewis-McCoy, 2014; Pattillo, 2013; Shedd, 2015; Stovall, 2016).

There have been increased calls for the field of social work to more intentionally engage matters of education (Ball & Skrzpek, 2020; Warren, 2014). However, to date, there is no primary or unifying framework for the field that is designed to propels social work forward and address educational justice in research or practice (Ball, 2021; Ball & Skrzpek, 2020). Social work practitioners, researchers, and administrators are uniquely trained and positioned to catalyze change across the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Culturally responsive practice in the field works to address individual barriers to educational success by working with students and families, but it should also address deeply systemic and structural barriers that continue to limit access to quality education. The culturally responsive social worker seeks to support the alleviation of discriminatory practices found within schools and policies even as they look to create new knowledge that can support the use of more culturally tailored interventions within schools.

Mental Health

Racism and discrimination (Trent et al., 2019), along with disadvantages in socioeconomic status, contribute significantly to mental health difficulties for people of color (Valdez et al., 2019). With the emergence of COVID-19, these numbers have increased disproportionality. For Black children and youth in particular, the percentage of those living in poverty increased by 2.8% age points, from 26.4% in 2019 to 29.2% in 2020 (Chen & Thomson, 2021). In 2018, suicide became the second leading cause of death for Black children ages 10–14 and the third leading cause of death for Black adolescents ages 15–19 (Gordon, 2020). When examining the suicide rates for Black children 12 years old and younger, researchers found that Black children were more likely to die by suicide than their White counterparts (Gordon, 2020). Risk factors for suicidality in Black children include having access to firearms, gender, bullying, being LGBTQIA+, and experiencing racial discrimination as well as racial trauma. Black boys are particularly at risk for suicide (Joe et al., 2006; Lindsey et al., 2010). In addition to increasing suicide rates, major depressive episodes in Black youth ages 12–17 increased from 9% to 10.3% between 2015 and 2018 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2018). Black youth may often express depressive symptoms differently than White youth; in particular, they are more likely to demonstrate externalizing behaviors (e.g., behavioral or conduct problems; Coleman & Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce, 2019). Thus, Black youth demonstrating these behaviors are more likely to be referred to inpatient services or the juvenile justice system where adequate treatment for mental health is even less available—a major contributor to the school to prison pipeline (Coleman & Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce, 2019).

African American youth are also at greater risk of exposure to trauma (i.e., poverty, family displacement, familial and community violence, homelessness, foster care placement, incarcerated family member incarcerated, loss of a loved one to violence) as well as complex trauma (i.e., exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, and the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure; National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2016; Pumariega et al., 2022). Data from the National Survey of Adolescents indicated that Black teens experienced a greater incidence of past year death of a family member (48.3%) and of a close friend (26.7%) compared to national averages (36.1% and 20.3%, respectively) (Rheingold et al. as cited in Henderson, 2017). Additionally, African American communities must navigate the effects of historical trauma (DeGruy, 2005; Durham & Webb, 2014; National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2016). Henderson (2017) discussed how Black youth often expressed their conceptualization of trauma through references related to death and loss, direct or indirect exposure to violence, parental absence and neglect, family conflict, police harassment, and social challenges that included peer pressure and bullying. However, a critical implication of her work suggests that these conceptualizations may not be fully captured in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a tool often utilized by social workers and other mental health professionals to assess mental health, including trauma. Research suggests Black youth also assume adult roles prematurely and do not often experience the fullness of adolescence as a transitional phase. Although adultification has been associated with increased vulnerability to delinquent peers, it is also associated with decreasing the risk of depressive symptoms in Black urban youth who were exposed to high levels of neighborhood risks and delinquent peers. Community cohesion was also found to be a buffer, moderating the impact of neighborhood effects (Nebbitt & Lombe, 2010). Stereotypes of Black youth have further deleterious effects on their mental health (Chavous et al., 2003; Taylor & Walton, 2011; Townsend et al., 2010). Barrie et al. (2016) examined the buffering role of collective self-esteem on the impact of internalized racial stereotypes among Black girls and found that collective self-esteem (i.e., one’s connection to their social group-sense of value; emotional significance) can moderate the effects internalized racism has on mental health. Research has also shown the importance of both positive and negative racial socialization messages and their impact on racial identity formation for African American adolescent boys and girls with key distinct gendered experiences (Butler-Barnes et al., 2019).

Despite the health disparities and the research on best practices for supporting Black youth that are highlighted here, engagement in the therapeutic process and completion of treatment is lower for Black youth than for their White counterparts. Barriers to treatment include stigma, reluctance to acknowledge psychological symptoms, negative encounters with mental health services and mistrust of clinical providers, limited community resources, difficulties in accessing available services, and cost and insurance limitations (Coleman & Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce, 2019). It is critical for social workers to understand and incorporate Black youths’ community cultural wealth, knowledge, and indigenous resources (e.g., faith community leaders, athletic coaches, school and after-school personnel, familial support and fictive kin relationships, etc.) into treatment plans and assessments. Additionally, practitioners should examine the cross-cultural utility of therapeutic tools and allow client voices to support the definition of their experiences. Cultural humility is a key mechanism that practitioners can use to engage with client voices consistently and consciously. Monitoring for explicit and implicit biases on an individual level and advocating in cases of institutional discriminatory practices are also vital to support the mental health of African American youth. Additionally, in spite of the susceptibility to mental health challenges due to pervasive structural inequities, research focused on the mental health of Black American children and their families remains under researched (Roberts et al., 2020). A recent review examining 26,000 empirical articles published between 1974 and 2018 in top-tier cognitive, developmental, and social psychology journals, revealed that only 5% of psychological publications highlighted race. The review also demonstrated that most publications have been edited by White editors, and that under these editors there have been significantly fewer publications that highlight race. Of the publications that do highlight race, articles are written by White authors who engaged significantly fewer participants of color in their work (Roberts et al., 2020). It is crucial that mental health scholarship begin to acknowledge the impact of race and racism on the mental health of Black youth in order to inform best practices, interventions, and policies that can lead to improved mental health outcomes.

Criminal Justice System

Similar to the areas of education and mental health, the Black–White gap persists within the criminal justice system (Rovner, 2021). While the number of incarcerated youth has steadily declined over the past two decades, the number of Black youth represented in the juvenile justice system has increased (Coleman & Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce, 2019). Black youth are four times more likely than their White peers to be held in youth placement settings (i.e., detention centers, residential treatment centers, group homes, youth prisons) (Puzzanchera et al., 2020). Other scholarship situates the average increase of Black youth detainment at 15% (Rovner, 2021 as cited in Abrams et al., 2021). Explanations for this overrepresentation have included the previously mentioned school to prison pipeline, both implicit and explicit biases expressed by criminal justice system stakeholders (e.g., police, attorneys, judges) and the over surveillance and criminalization of Black youth behaviors within their communities (Abrams et al., 2021). Other scholars have pointed to hierarchical-attenuating (e.g., “innocent until proven guilty”) and hierarchy-enhancing beliefs (e.g., negative racial stereotypes) postulated by Social Dominance Theory that can uphold structural racism and inequality in the criminal justice system (Rucker & Richeson, 2021). As with other major systems in the United States, racism and inequality appear deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. In many ways, runaway slave patrols and the criminalization of everyday mundane activities of Black Americans set the stage for modern day policing and criminal justice outcomes. Research indicates that Black youth begin to experience encounters with the police as early as 8 years of age (Rucker & Richeson, 2021) and by 24 years old, they have experienced nine times the encounters with police as their White counterparts ( Prowse et al., 2020). African American children and youth are also more likely than their White peers to experience the use of force and injury during these encounters (Eith & Durose, 2011). Jindal et al.’s (2022) systematic review of quantitative and qualitative research found that police exposures were associated with adverse health outcomes (e.g., depression, sexual risk behaviors, substance abuse, stress, fear for life, anxiety, maladaptive coping, role confusion, and difficulty engaging in prosocial behavior) for Black youth. Black children and youth in foster care are often particularly at risk within the school to prison pipeline. Scholars argue that non-criminal institutions, such as child welfare services for example, play a part in the school to prison nexus with a disproportionate number of Black youth being placed in congregate care facilities that can mirror juvenile detentions (i.e., over surveillance, labeling, excessive punishment) (Goodkind et al., 2013; Johnson, 2021).

Culturally responsive practice includes understanding how systems outside juvenile justice, or the “shadow carceral state” (Beckett & Murakawa, 2012), interconnect in contributing to Black youth’s exposure to the criminal justice system. Just as in the fields of education and mental health, social work practitioners, researchers, and administrators within these institutions can play a pivotal role in recognizing and advocating against practices and policies that reinforce subjugation on an individual, programmatic, and organizational level. Utilizing Afrocentric frameworks to guide practice and research is another key aspect of culturally responsive practice-shifting the focus from deficit-based paradigms to strengths-based assets and solutions already present within Black communities.

Culturally Responsive Programming

As noted, many African American children are exposed to institutional-level biases and community-level inequities stemming from structural forms of racism. Experiences of structural racism adversely challenge the prospects that many African American children experience when trying to access healthy childhood development. To bolster outcomes, a great majority of African American communities champion culturally responsive approaches through the implementation of Afrocentric programs, Afrocentric interventions, and Afrocentric independent schools as an important mechanism of positive youth development for their children (Byrdsong et al., 2013; Giddings, 2001; Kifano, 1996; Whaley & McQueen, 2004).

While there is a degree of heterogeneity in the foci of Afrocentric interventions (e.g., educational attainment, sexual health, substance abuse, violence prevention), they share the common core goal of providing a humanistic approach that centers the importance of culture in populations of African descent and the infusion of African Afro diasporan customs, ethos, mores, and traditions as part of practice implementation (Byrdsong et al., 2013; Lateef, Amoako, et al., 2022). In doing so, they seek to provide youth with messaging and socialization to bolster their positive identity as persons of African heritage, connect youth with deep structural values shared within African culture(s), and socialization mechanisms to buffer their exposures to the dehumanization socialization they experience in both Eurocentric and other forms.

Afrocentric interventions share a common assumption about African American culture—that African Americans and other Black Diaspora groups are culturally part of the diversity of African culturally informed communities (Lateef, 2021). Moreover, that continued connection to African identity and cultural norms is a key component to wellness for Black communities in historically racialized nations and societies. The majority of Afrocentric interventions apply the Nguzo Saba, an Afrocentric Framework that emphasizes seven principles associated with familial and cultural unity, self-efficacy or determination, faith, creative expression, and faith (Lateef, Amoako, et al., 2022; Loyd & Williams, 2017). Methodologically, Afrocentric interventions with African American youth also emphasize communal values, curriculum that seeks to combat youths’ internalization of self and cultural hatred, community connections, empowerment, and multigroup interventions whereby youth are encouraged to work together to experience and acquire program objectives and skill sets (Lateef, Amoako, et al., 2022).

Evaluations of programs that apply Afrocentric theoretical assumptions and provide African American youth with worldviews that align closely with Afrocentric tenets demonstrate positive outcomes on multiple domains of importance for youth development. Meta-analyses have found that among African American children, pride and heritage socialization among caregivers that emphasizes messages and activities designed to engage youth on ethnic traditions, cultural norms, values, and history is associated with scholastic competence, social competence, social acceptance, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and overall self-concept (Huguley et al., 2019; Wang & Huguley, 2012). These findings align with those among African Americans in the emerging adulthood period. African American young adults who report higher levels of connection to African heritage, values, beliefs, and sense of community have been found to be more likely to strive for higher levels of career achievement, pursue careers with leadership roles and pursue continued education in their occupational field, and have better emotional coping skills and social relationships, as well as greater ethnic identity (Brown & Segrist, 2016; Lateef, Nartey, et al., 2022).

Article Summary

This article presented key dimensions of cultural responsivity with African American youth which may serve as a helpful model for social work practice with this population. As highlighted, the authors suggest that culturally responsive practice with African American youth begins with acknowledging that African American youth identity and positive development intersect with culture. While culture is undoubtedly a quality that belongs to all ethnic populations, academic literature has commonly viewed African Americans as lacking functional cultural traits with group differences that are thought to be primarily based on varied experiences of oppression, discrimination, and socioeconomic factors, interacting in context to geopolitical contexts (Landrine & Klonoff, 1995; Stewart, 2006). The perception of African Americans as benighted is dehumanizing and reinforces a deficit model that marginalizes or discounts centuries of advocacy and literary discourse contributions by African Americans stiving to define themselves (Logan, 2018; McAdoo, 2007).

Instead, the authors advance much of what See’s (2013) African American experience thesis suggests, stating that an acknowledgment of African American culture includes a celebration of its strengths, resilience, and ties to its African cultural vestiges that equipped it with specific cultural mechanisms, coping strategies, and adaptive strengths. The authors reviewed essential components, which have been core factors explored within the strengths-based literature related to this population despite the importance of recognizing heterogeneity within African American culture. The authors also suggested that culturally responsive practice with African American youth consists of keen awareness of the unique social and health disparities faced by this population in the process of procuring the developmental milestones necessary for success in later stages within their lifespan.

As discussed, the devaluation of child and youth development for African Americans is long-standing. This youth population faces disproportional system-level discrimination biases that serve as risk factors for normative youth maturation. Unequitable social and environmental factors have contributed significantly to disparities in health for African American youth. However, youth developmental outcome is not the sum of risk experienced but includes experiences and assets that promote resiliency and protective factors that buffer against risk. Afrocentric interventions are the most common form of culturally informed interventions that are utilized within African American communities. Both qualitative and quantitative findings support the vital role these programs have in helping African American youth meet the challenges posed during their adolescent stage of development.

Implications for Social Work Education

To advance culturally responsive practice with African American youth, it is critical that social work education better reflects culturally diverse theories and practices akin to youth service agencies that focus on African American youth development. Too often, course work that focuses on diverse perspectives like using Afrocentric lenses in youth practice is marginalized or regulated to elective classes and is not infused across the social work curriculum for the benefit of students. By incorporating African and African American theory and praxis, aspiring social work practitioners and researchers will be better academically socialized to themes and frameworks of youth development that they will utilize during community practice with African descent population in the United States. More, the inclusion of culturally responsive models also assists social workers in meeting core anti-racist goals by decentralizing Eurocentric models as universal modes of explaining human experiences.

Pragmatically, this goal can be achieved by ensuring students are exposed to (a) case studies and themes within African American history and culture, (b) historical overviews of the development of culturally centered approaches in African American communities, (c) course content introducing strengths-based models of practice with African American youth and families, and (d) field placement or learning credits engaging community-based centers and organizations that are applying culturally responsive practice models with African American youth. Social work programs should revisit their curriculum and course learning objectives to ensure students obtain substantial instruction levels that underscore the importance of cultural responsivity with African American youth to inform practice.

Implications for Research

The literature on culturally responsive practice with African American youth is still underdeveloped within social work. To address this gap, social work scholars must better engage African American communities to obtain community-derived expertise on how to conduct culturally responsive practice in context with its youth. Culturally responsive programs with African American youth have a significant positive impact on their lives regarding community violence exposure, substance abuse, and risky behaviors. However, a great majority of the African American community agencies, due to overextension, lack the capacity to outline their conceptual frameworks and rigorously test their interventions to show the link from cultural identity and socialization to youths’ social-behavioral outcomes (Whaley & McQueen, 2004). However, reporting program findings are crucial for securing future funding and or improving program effectiveness and efficacy. Thus, social work researchers can play an important role in applying both sensitivity and respect by working with community-based organizations to develop university/community partnerships, (a) identifying current implementation limitations of current program practices, (b) revisiting and revising conceptual frameworks, and aims and (c) developing equitable evaluation metrics to support future collaborations to decimate and secure future funding to advance practice and policy with African American youth.

Implications for Practice

Effective social work practice with African American youth remains a perennial challenge that stems from the current lack of knowledge from African American community voices. The limited diversity within the workforce of African American social work practitioners is also a barrier to culturally responsive practice. However, Ortega and Dyntley-Matos (2020) argue that the most serious impediments to culturally responsive practice with populations are not knowledge and/or belonging to the population itself but a failure of providers themselves to engage in active self-awareness and maintain a respectful attitude toward cultural points of view that may differ from their own. Similarly, Edwards (2015) contends that continuous striving for cultural competence is misleading and may bias clinicians against engaging with clients to learn from their vantage point how culture, ethnic histories, and group identities inform their lived experiences. Subsequently, while the authors encourage practitioners to engage in continuous education training to improve their skills in working with African American youth, it is equally important to (a) continue to evaluate their own biases to ensure that such factors do not negatively impact their practice with African American youth and (b) respectively find ways to engage African American youth and their caregivers to learn better how to be responsive to their needs and ensure one’s practice reflects appropriately.

Author Note

The authors declare no potential conflicts of interest. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Husain Lateef, Campus Box 1196, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130. E-mail:

Conflicts of Interest: The authors have no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose. The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare that are relevant to the content of this article. All authors certify that they have no affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest or non-financial interest in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript. The authors have no financial or proprietary interests in any material discussed in this article.

Further Reading

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