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Article: Understanding the Conditions and Cost of Resilience for Black Youth

Melvin, a 17-year old Black student, was required to transfer to Reach Higher Alternative High School (RHAHS) because of his attendance problems at his previous school.

Difficult life circumstances (i.e., his father’s demanding work schedule) forced Melvin, the eldest child, to bear the weight of caring for his three younger siblings. This led to challenges with Melvin’s ability to attend school regularly and he was expelled because of his severely low attendance. RHAHS allowed him flexibility in completing his coursework and was conveniently located in a neighborhood not far from his home.

Although Melvin needed an additional two years to complete the requirements for his diploma, he persisted and graduated. Teachers at RHAHS raved about Melvin resilience, strength, and persistence. They noted that he was brilliant and had confidence in his ability to excel in college. One teacher stated, “If more students were as resilient as Melvin, maybe the district’s dropout rate would be lower.” This teacher’s statement places the onus of student success heavily on the student without consideration for the systemic barriers that may make it  impossible for some students to persist.


What exactly is resilience and why is it so heavily researched?

Resilience is the ability to succeed despite risk exposure (e.g. difficult life circumstances, trauma experiences; Dumont & Provost, 1999). Previous research on resilience has included an investigation into social factors (e.g., social support, positive role models, etc.) and individual characteristics (e.g. adaptive coping strategies) that contribute to young people’s ability to overcome difficult life circumstances.


What conditions create risks for which resilience is necessary to persist?

Health, economic, and education disparities between Black and White youth are well documented and represent an institution of systematic inequality. Essentially, systems like schools are structured such that Black youth are at risk for encountering obstacles that are manifestations of these disparities. For example, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers for similar infractions (United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). Inequitable disciplinary practices ultimately impact the ways in which Black youth engage with the education system. One study reported that students who had been suspended or expelled were five times more likely to drop out of school compared to students who had not been suspended or expelled (Suh & Suh, 2007). Black students are often taught to work twice as hard. But the reality is that they must also be twice as good, twice as patient, twice as calm, twice as understanding, twice as forgiving—this is resilience. We prepare Black students to endure and persist because they are often confronted with racial and socioeconomic barriers that jeopardize their chances for success.


What does resilience cost?

We must begin to consider the mental and emotional tax of resilience. As we become more interested in how students are resilient, we move our attention away from focusing on why they need to be resilient in the first place. We must critically assess systems that create and maintain oppressive conditions, for which Black youth must be resilient to navigate. Melvin is just one of the thousands of students trying to navigate the minefield of obstacles associated with systemic oppression.

We must be resilient to persist, but we must also be mindful of the cost.



U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 1 Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline) March 21, 2014.

Dumont, M., & Provost, M. A. (1999). Resilience in adolescents: Protective role of social support, coping strategies, self-esteem, and social activities on experience of stress and depression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 28, 343-363.

Suh, S., & Suh, J. (2007). Risk factors and levels of risk for high school dropouts. Professional School Counseling, 10(3), 297–306.

Natasha Johnson