Understanding the Experiences of Black Male Youth in Canada

black male youthThe lives of African Canadian male youth have become an important topic of discussion as events in the United States between Black males and law enforcement have begun again to shed light on their own policy and practice. This social justice and public movement has been forefront in social media as individuals and community groups reinforce the disparities which exist among African-American males and insist that #blacklivesmatter (Rankin and Ng, 2013). In Canada, our own policy makers and enforcers have struggled with meeting the needs of our African Canadian youth and families in many social systems from education, to child welfare, employment and postsecondary education, income equity, mental health and criminal justice. The disparities within the Black community and experiences of oppression, poverty, racism, exclusion and more derives from the rise of capitalism and experience of slavery.  For Black male youth in Canada, this historical context has shaped the policies, discourse, the systems which service Black youth, popular attitudes and beliefs systems. This shaping has become ingrained within a structural and cultural context. Some of these experiences such as poverty, education, media, racial profiling, and mental health have had a significant influence upon the development of Black youth within our communities.

Racial profiling is connected to cultural attitudes, such as popular media (Mahiri and Conner, 2003) which all play a significant role in defining public opinion about Black male youth (Wortley and Tanner, 2004). In all, these experiences further impact Black youth’s psychological wellbeing (Scott and House, 2005) and their ability to become successful in their lives with barriers which exist. Ng and Rankin write, Black male youth “face racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, social isolation, violence in their neighborhoods, family challenges and unemployment” (2013). Black youth have experiences of poverty, lack of resources, mental health difficulties, and lack of appropriate educational access which further impacts their participation within their community at a greater degree (Rankin and Ng, 2013). Avvy Go, Colour of Poverty noted that the rates of poverty in Canada appeared to correlate with skin colour. She noted that 1 in 10 of Caucasian children/youth experience poverty while the rate lowers for other ethnic groups to 1 in 3 of Caribbean descent experiencing poverty and 1 in 2 of African descent children/youth experiencing poverty (Go, 2012). Go highlights that poverty intersects with racism and subtle discrimination with various education, economic, business and governmental sectors. The experience of poverty correlates with youth’s achievement in education, their access to acceptable employment which meets their best potential, and access to resources such as healthy meals, suitable housing, and opportunities (Rankin & Ng, 2013). Similarly Campaign 2000 in their annual report on child poverty write, “eradicating child poverty in Ontario requires addressing and dismantling long-standing systematic inequities [that] …may limit access to quality jobs, income supports, higher education and social supports for children and families” (Khanna, 2014).

The experience of poverty further intersects with educational opportunities, mental health, and community availability of resources. Education is an endorsed and encouraged foundation to many African and Caribbean homes (Khanna, 2014). The pursuit of education was fostered as a response to the experience of slavery where literacy was denied to individuals due to race.  Part of this belief shared by Afro-Canadians is that access to education and opportunities meant higher social and economic power and resources (Smith, Schneider, and Ruck, 2005) for individuals. Black parents who immigrated to Canada envisioned Canada as the country which provided greater educational, social, and economic opportunities for themselves and their children (Smith, Schneider, and Ruck, 2005). It was not cultural values which influenced the current state of Black youth in education or youth disengagement with education but rather related to systematic racism, a non-supportive school environment, lack of connection with educators, limited Black role models within the education system and misconceptions of Black youth (Gordon and Zinga, 2012). Black youth are currently over-representative in special education classes, among students who were suspended/expelled, in remedial programs, and in applied and modified education streams (Gordon and Zinga, 2012). These challenges influenced the Toronto District School Board decision to open up an Afro-centric school which focused upon, “organizing itself around a holistic model of communal principles, while making the totality of black-lived experience relevant to all parts of the curriculum in order to foster the social, physical, spiritual, and academic development of students” (Gordon and Zinga, 2012, pg. 6). Education inequities among Black youth intersect with lack of community resources. Over the years, funding cuts continued to impact the Black community and programs originally designed to improve their participation in the community and develop a greater voice (refer to Involve Youth program allocated by the City of Toronto, 2007).

One of the popular media images for Black youth is the connection between them and violence. In the US and in Canada, “urban youth are inscribed by stigmatizing images of social pathology in the official discourse of the media and the legal system as well as in social welfare and public policy institutions” (Mahiri and Conner, 2003). The belief that Black youth are “prone” to violence seems to be part of a systematic chatter that has persisted over time and impacts how police officers, legal professionals, educators and other professionals in the public interact with them. This connection between Black youth and violence appears in pop culture and the media, which further reinforces misconceptions (Mahiri & Conner, 2003).

Over-criminalization is another challenge with youth justice (McMurtry & Curling, 2008). The rates of black youth that are stopped by police or “carded” are staggering and black youth experience higher rates of incarceration than white youths (Rankin & Ng, 2013). Racial profiling is connected to cultural attitudes, such as popular media (Mahiri and Conner, 2003) which all play a significant role in defining public opinion about Black youth (Wortley and Tanner, 2004). In all, these experiences further impact Black youth’s psychological well being (Scott and House, 2005) and their ability to become successful in their lives with barriers which exist. Black youth experience systematic racism and racial profiling that impacts their rates of incarceration and involvement with the police (Wortley and Tanner, 2004).  Racial profiling has been a “hot” topic lately considering the rise of violence against Black youth due to police officers and other security personnel using excessive force upon Black youth engaged or not engaged in criminal behavior. One author writes, “racial profiling is said to exist when the members of certain racial or ethnic groups become subject to greater levels of criminal justice surveillance than others” (Wortley and Tanner, 2004, p.199). An analysis of police card data showed that trends exist in race, age and gender among individuals stopped by the police over a period of seven years. According to the Toronto police data, black youth aged 15 to 24 were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by the police than white males (Rankin, 2010) (Wortley and Tanner, 2004). Police carding transcends socio- economic status, educational level and profession which then creates and manifests beliefs about self and sense of belonging and safety (Rankin and Ng, 2013).

These experiences have ultimately contributed to negative psychosocial outcomes for youth. Some of these negative outcomes include increase in depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, and learned maladaptive strategies to address the stress. Scott and House reference “among youth, the strategies used to cope with various stressors have been linked to internal cues of emotional distress and perceptions of control” (Scott and House, 2005, p.2). Youth are aware of the systematic racist environment in which they live in and this becomes evident with how they define their self-concept and self-worth. One author terms, “daily racism microstressors” as the experiences and messages Black youth receive from their environment about their value within society (Scott and House, 2005). Sometimes these beliefs become ingrained in how they see themselves and their sense of belonging. Systematic racism do not just impact the lived experiences for Black youth, but ultimately impact their psychological development (Scott and House).

The correlations discussed above strongly influence Black youth’s involvement in the criminal justice system. These issues occur at systematic macro levels in terms of education and poverty. There are other correlations which exist, such as the over representation of Black youth in child welfare and in the criminal justice system. Proponents argue that child welfare conceptions of Black families and subjective assessment of risk plays an important role in their professional capacity in working with Black families (Rankin and Ng, 2013). Cultural mezzo levels in terms of mental health and media portrayals of Black youth, as well as lack of social programs to meet the needs of youth (Scott & House, 2005) and (Mahiri & Conner, 2003).

For Black male youth, it seems fitting that policy changes are critical to bring upon the change required for better life outcomes. However, at the same time the need for change and the issues impacting Black male youth is complex and requires further examination and assessment by policy makers.The available resources are dependent upon funding, and in Toronto alone there are insufficient financial resources available to satisfactorily meet the needs of the 250,000 approximately Black people within the region (Rankin & Ng). Changing the youth criminal justice system, the educational system, mental health services, and child welfare would require changing ideologies about the Black community, particularly young males.  In addition, other communities have been able to meet the needs of their community without depending solely upon Ministry funding. This may be a question of mobilizing the Black community to work together to develop programs and achieve financial resources to meet the needs of their community, without looking to the government to make policy changes that suit Black male youth. I believe that the best mobilizers are the individuals within the Black community, who have the insight, experience and knowledge about their community and can inform the policies which best meet their youth. Working in the system or outside of the system will not be effective entirely because it is not a priority for the government currently. In addition, there are no specific statistics on this problem/issue because race data is not collected in many public institutions in Ontario particularly. But the statistics are important and the experience of youth witnessed by youth leaders, community members and families speak to the crisis which exists for Black male youth.


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Go, A. (2012, October 12). Poverty and Rce. P. (S. Jackson, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://tvoparents.tvo.org/video/183277/poverty-and-race

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Statistics Canada. (2015, May 31). Definitions. Retrieved May 10, 2015, from Statistics Canada: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2011001/definitions-eng.htm#r2

Wortley, S., & Tanner, J. (2004). Discrimination or “good” policing? The racial profiling debate in Canada. Metropolis Net, 1, 198-210. Retrieved from http://canada.metropolis.net/research-policy/cities/publication/diverse_cite_magazine_e.pdf#page=198

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