The importance of mentoring our Black male youth

a man and a young boy throwing rocks on water
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Though not directly related to medicine, this week’s Doctor’s Advice article is related to education. Available research points to a range of potential benefits of mentoring for Black male youth, such as reduced health-risk behavior and improved academic outcomes, social-emotional wellbeing, mental health, interpersonal relationships, and racial identity.

Finding mentors is the key. A study found that Black youth were less likely than White youth to find natural mentors from the community setting such as religious leaders, neighbors or employers. However, Black mentors were found to include relatives, older friends and teachers who are representative of “natural” mentors.

White middle-class youth benefit from unearned privilege and are often faced with myriad opportunities for educational and personal advancement versus the substantial uncertainty among Black male youth. Young Black males often experience economic disadvantage and have had the misfortune of having to navigate differing cultural norms in the school setting, at home, and in their neighborhoods.

Adaptive coping behaviors such as developing a hyper-masculine posture may serve to advance their survival in one setting as opposed to other settings, such as a hyper-masculine posturing that is perceived as threatening by school staff. The potential need for Black boys to straddle multiple cultural lines across school, home and neighborhood settings is a challenge.

Overcoming the challenges

The need for mentoring interventions for Black male youth is at a crisis. Black boys face many challenges, many of which stem directly from the failures of key institutions that shape their development and prospects for healthy futures. 

In schools, Black male students face over-referral for school disciplinary action and special education. Similarly, within the criminal justice system Black children are 18 times more likely than White children to be sentenced as adults.

Black boys are viewed as “older,” “less innocent,” and “less human” than White boys. Moreover, studies show that police officers’ dehumanizing views of Black boys were significantly related to their use of force on Black suspects. These findings suggest an “adultification” of Black boys in which our society denies them the opportunity to experience a true childhood.

A few studies revealed that mentoring was related to better academic achievement in Black male youth. Afrocentric mentoring programs found that participants in the mentoring program had higher grade point averages than students in the comparison group.

In a Philadelphia study, for 86% of Black boys between the ages of 12-20, having a natural mentor predicted 2.8 times the odds of getting good grades. Another study revealed that among boys without a mentor, experiences included more interpersonal racial discrimination.

 This included perception of routine and subtle experiences of “unfair treatment,” “others being afraid of you,” “people acting as if you are not smart,” as well as more school suspensions and less school engagement. However, for boys who reported a natural mentor, racial discrimination was related to fewer school suspensions and more school engagement.

Studies also showed that Black boys with natural mentors were less likely to get into a fight at school, be jumped, have access to a gun, see someone holding a gun, and see someone get shot. Studies also showed Black high school seniors with natural mentoring relationships showed less anger, rule-breaking behavior and aggression.

Benefits of mentoring

Mentoring programs targeting Black boys have revealed that a benefit of participating in these programs is improved relationships with other boys and men. A natural mentor was related to the belief that school was important for future success through participants’ racial identity or their positive perceptions about people from their own race. 

One mentoring program for boys in the foster care system reported that boys developed healthy, trusting and positive relationships with other Black students and associates. Natural mentoring programs offer enhanced benefits for Black boys because the approaches are consistent with their cultural values and take into consideration their culture and community.

Another program adaptation is a youth-driven approach in which Black boys are viewed as partners in the delivery of mentoring rather than only as recipients of mentoring. It is important from the organizational to the interpersonal levels, as well as utilizing a critical consciousness perspective that incorporates critical race theory, intersectionality and social justice.

Other factors critical to successful natural mentoring include parental involvement, common race and ethnicity, and male gender for Black boys.

Implications are that mentor training is essential. This would enable mentors to better understand and support our Black boys. Highly trained mentors would promote higher quality relationships between mentors and Black male youth and in turn have more positive outcomes in mentees.

Bottom line, Black men: Become a mentor to a Black male youth. You can make a difference in their lives and our community.

David Hamlar MD, DDS is an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in craniofacial skull base surgery. He attended Howard University College of Dentistry (DDS) and Ohio State University (MD), and came to Minnesota for his fellowship in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Besides medicine, he is a retired Minnesota National Guardsman achieving the rank of major general. His passion today is empowering students of color to achieve their dreams of entering the medical professions as well as other STEM-oriented careers.