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Culture, Violence, and African American Youths
By JoAn Preston Burson, PhD, ACSW, and Loretta Young Wright, EdD, MSW

Homicide is the leading cause of death among African American males aged 10 to 24 in the United States, according to 2009 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2010, the CDC found that among homicide victims in that age group, 84% were killed with a firearm.

The city of Chicago has experienced a shocking increase in youth violence, particularly among African American and Hispanic populations. In the period of 2008 to 2009, 32 children attending Chicago public schools were killed. In 2009 to 2010, 27 Chicago public school students died due to violence, according to the Loyola Public Interest Law Reporter.

While youths killed by violence is a national crisis with no easy solution, it has had a particularly negative effect on Chicago’s inner city population. Because the victims and perpetrators of the violence are so young, schools have suffered as much as families and communities when it comes to the losses.

When violence occurs in a school setting, social workers are among the first called to respond. While a good deal of professional literature exists on the subject of violence, more is needed in the particular area of youth violence, specifically more literature addressing the unique challenges confronting social workers who provide crisis counseling to African American youths in urban school settings. The assessment of survival, racial inequity, the “no-snitch” rule, and culture are critical factors that impact African American youths’ perceptions of their ability to resolve crises and live healthy, productive lives. Awareness of these factors can shape an intervention and help lay a foundation for further assistance.

Moving Toward More Effective Service Delivery
With the overwhelming availability of guns in communities and the escalation of youth violence, many African American youths are focused on survival. “I have to get them before they get me” is the attitude shaping the mindset of many youths who believe they have limited alternatives to violence if they are to survive.

Survival belief recognizes immediate needs and does not consider long-term needs. This short-range view may impact African American youths’ decision to engage in or refrain from violent acts. School social workers must recognize that peer relations and experiences in the community often determine survival belief. Some African American youths have experienced their community’s failure to protect them and have taken the initiative to survive on their own without adult intervention.

Social workers must acknowledge this behavior and use it to better assist youths in practicing nonviolent strategies to cope with confrontation and aggression.

Disparities in services in African American communities may limit the opportunities some youths have to make better decisions about self-protection and violence. Impoverished communities shape the dismal perception some African American youths have regarding quality of life and the level of control they have over their actions. Some African American males believe they have been perceived as the cause of society’s ills and dehumanized as ruthless. These beliefs narrowly define them and may inadvertently connect them to violence.

African American youths are aware that racial inequity can shut the door to dreams and aspirations. The pain, anger, and frustration that racial inequity spawn may be seen in the form of a sense of futility and impulsive behavior. It is vital that social workers feel comfortable enough around these youths so they can help them reveal the beliefs behind their actions and help them move past the issues that may potentially lead to acts of violence.

Mistrust and the No-Snitch Rule
Some students are aware that many staff members in urban schools do not reside in the communities in which the violence occurs and display their suspicion and mistrust in the form of resistance. Furthermore, social workers in urban school settings must understand the no-snitch rule and how it applies to honor. This rule is a code of honor embraced by some African American youths that often permeates the school culture and challenges ideas of friendship, family, and community cohesiveness. The no-snitch rule prevents some African American youths from seeking support out of fear of appearing powerless or weak. Social workers must be aware of this rule and the way it encourages confidentiality and loyalty among those who have adopted it in order to stay alive.

Culture and Crisis Intervention
Working with urban youths in a school setting requires knowledge of their cultural patterns. There are sensitive issues in all cultures that call for recognition, understanding, and insight that can come from increased knowledge of those cultures. African American males’ identities are often validated by the feedback they receive from peers regarding their “cool.”

“Swagger” is the term used by many African American youths to describe the cool persona. Language, clothing, and walk exemplify swagger, and some African American youths live and define their existence based on how their swagger is perceived by peers. A strong emphasis is placed on being able to appear fearless. The cool persona can affect a social worker’s ability to provide effective service delivery and hinder youths from interacting comfortably with the crisis workers.

Creating Crisis Services that Work
Violence is powerful and painful. School social workers must have the skills to identify, assess, and intervene in a crisis. Intervention can empower and serve as a focus for future assistance. Social workers can assist in empowering African American youths by providing crisis intervention that addresses the realities of these youths’ lives and struggles. Armed with appropriate intervention measures, school social workers can fill a tremendous void in crisis services for African American youths and help meet their mental health needs in a culturally relevant manner.

— Jo Ann Burson Preston, PhD, ACSW, teaches at True Social Justice Academy, an alternative high school, and has been a school social worker in the Chicago public school system.

— Loretta Young Wright, EdD, LCSW, is a school social worker and former principal in the Chicago public school system.