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African Americans: Practice Interventions

Abstract and Keywords

African Americans number about 35 million or 12% of the U.S. population. Their life expectancy is lower than that of White Americans, and despite the educational gains made since mid-1980s, the unemployment gap between African Americans and Whites has increased. Similarly, although the number of African Americans working in white-collar occupations has increased, the disparity in wage earnings between African American and White workers continues. Regardless of social class African Americans are made to be cognizant of their race at all times. Today they are still at risk for social issues such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, poverty, high rates of female headed households, infant mortality that is twice as high as Whites, residential segregation, racism, and discrimination. As daunting as these problems are, the strengths of the African American community have allowed it to thrive even amid arduous circumstances.

Keywords: Strengths perspective, systems approach, clinical assessment, political activism

The Risks and Strengths of African Americans

African Americans number about 35 million or 12% of the U.S. population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). They largely reside in urban areas and live in southern states. Their life expectancy is lower than that of White Americans, and despite the educational gains made since the mid-1980s, the unemployment gap between African Americans and Whites has increased (Ferraro, Thorpe, McCabe, Kelley-Moore, & Jiang, 2006). Similarly, although the number of African Americans working in white-collar occupations has increased, the disparity in wage earnings between African American and White workers continues (Daniels, 1998; McAdoo, 2007).

Regardless of social class African Americans are made to be cognizant of their race at all times. Early European settlers viewed Africans pejoratively (Alexander, 2005; Hacker, 1992). They were assumed not to have the psychological capabilities to achieve in education or ever to achieve professional levels. These assumptions were supported and continue to be espoused by social scientists who question the intelligence of people of African ancestry largely based on theories of genetic inferiority (Cherry, 1995; Lombardo & Dorr, 2006). Today they are still at risk for social issues such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, poverty, high rates of female headed households, infant mortality that is twice as high as Whites, residential segregation, racism, and discrimination (Child Trends, Inc., 1993; Hutchison, 1996; MacMaster et al., 2007; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1992). As daunting as these problems are, the strengths of the African American community have allowed it to thrive even amidst arduous circumstances.

Strength Within the African American Community

The African American family is composed of both the nuclear family, which includes the parents and children, and the extended family, which includes the parents, children, relatives, friends, the minister, and fictive kin (McAdoo, 2007; Pearson, Muller, & Frisco, 2006).

Hence, family in the African American community usually includes both biological and nonbiological individuals. The family is characterized by strong ties to its members and an egalitarian role sharing (Leashore, 1995). “The deep sense of kinship has historically been one of the strongest forces in traditional African life. Kinship is the mechanism which regulates social relationships between people in a given community” (Harvey, 1985, p. 13). Kinship bonds are a major component of the value base of African American families.

In contrast to the European community these values are expressed very differently in the African American community. Male and female roles are fluid in African American families. The father is not always the head of the family. Sometimes, the mother, grandparent, or other relatives operate in this capacity. Fathers often take on cooking, cleaning, grooming of children, and household responsibilities that by traditional European standards are usually carried out by females (Hill, 1997, 2002). Additionally, older children sometimes assume the parental or caregiver role for younger siblings.

When circumstances necessitate, children are often cared for by relatives or nonkin, and it is not at all uncommon for children to be raised from birth through adulthood by extended family members. For instance, the African concept of children being raised by the entire village can be seen as a guiding principle for the African American practice of informal adoption of children. Informal child adoption services are provided on both short- and long-term basis. In 1990 ∼1.3 million African American children were living in homes where a relative was the primary caregiver and no biological parent was present (Scannapieco & Jackson, 1996). Children are not viewed as being disadvantaged because they are adopted, and it is uncommon for adoptive parents to treat their biological children and adopted children differently (Albert, Iaci, & Catlin, 2004).

A second and important strength within the African American community is the church. The African American community draws strength from the African American church, which has long become a symbol of freedom from White domination (Martin, 2007; Wingfield, 1998). Lincoln and Mamiya (1990) define this church as the Black controlled independent denominations, which make up the heart of Black Christianity (Moore & Lott-Collins, 2002). Second only in importance to the Black family the African American church serves the community's need for spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical, social, and moral support.

It also serves as a coping and survival mechanism against the effects of racism and oppression and as a place where African Americans are able to experience unconditional positive regard (Lawson & Thomas, 2007). As a pseudo-family it is a place where its members can be nurtured and feel accepted and it is also the hub of their social and political activity. It has spawned African American seminaries, colleges and academies, political movements, and civil associations (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Smith, 2004).

Specific Issues for Social Work Policy and Practice

African Americans have a history of being negatively stereotyped by the social sciences (Douglass, 1993; Krzysztof & Norris, 2000; Logan, Freeman, & McRoy, 1990; Taylor, 1994) and related to by the majority of American social institutions from a White Anglo middle-class orientation (Congress, 1994; Warren, Orbe, & Kimmel, 2004). They have been viewed as inferior, unmotivated for treatment, psychologically impoverished, nonarticulate, and hence not able to successfully engage in therapy. These stereotypes have resulted from the lack of a conceptual understanding of African American culture. African Americans, individually and collectively, have been relegated to a position of marginality and powerlessness by virtue of the country's socioeconomic and political infrastructure. They have been systematically denied equal access to resources and have endured the inferior treatment of minority status. This arrangement has had very deleterious psychological, emotional, and physical effects on the Black community in terms of stress and stress-related disorders and mental health problems that emerge as individuals, families, and communities attempt to cope with and often internalize their ascribed inferior status.

In part, as a result of negative treatment African Americans are often very suspicious of and reserved with those from different racial and cultural backgrounds. This may interfere with trust building that is vital to establishing a therapeutic helping relationship. White helpers are often seen as an extension of White supremacy or racism and are approached with caution until they demonstrate an understanding of and appreciation for the African American culture and experience (Duster, 2006). Clients may partially or totally withhold information that is felt to be private or they may not be forthcoming with information if they think that the interpretation of such information could result in negative consequences. What follows is a discussion of social work issues for practice and policy at the micro, messo, and macro levels. These principles have been adapted from the author's earlier work on social work practice with African Americans (Dhooper & Moore, 2001).

Practice Principles and Approaches

Micro Level Considerations

View the Client from a Strengths Perspective. Social workers often approach the African American client from a pathos perspective and base their assessment of the client relative to a deficits model (Hepworth, Rooney, & Laresen, 2006). For instance, female-headed households are often characterized as pathological and African American men are rarely given credit for being active in their children's lives. The social worker must be careful not to portray a negative valuation of a family type of composition that is unfamiliar or different from the married-couple-with-children model (McPhatter, 1991). If the family is the client system, care should be taken to explore the families' coping mechanisms and support systems both of which may reveal extraordinary survival skills.

Use a Systems Approach to the Client Assessment. Explore the clients' problem(s) from a systems perspective. General systems theory helps the social worker consider the client from a global perspective by considering the impact of other systems upon the circumstances of the client. The client's circumstance must be considered from a global point of view in order to fully appreciate the significance of both internal and external factors that may serve to facilitate or constrain client functioning.

Become Familiar with Alternative Ways of Interpreting Behavior. “The social worker must be well versed in alternative theoretical explanations to mainstream explanations of various cultural groups behavior and functioning” (McPhatter, 1991, p. 15). If the African American client's behavior is not referenced against that of other African Americans it may appear abnormal or deviant when in fact it may not be.

Involve Extended Support Systems in Intervention. The involvement of the client's extended support system may be helpful in a variety of ways. It may help with information gathering. As a result, a more accurate assessment and treatment plan may result. It may also help to circumvent misunderstandings or mistrust that the client may have toward the helping professional.

Be Aware that Not All African American Clients Are Welcoming of African American Helpers. Do not assume that all African American clients gravitate toward African American social workers. For a multiplicity of reasons, a bond between an African American social worker and an African American client may never solidify. Differences in values, beliefs, or life experiences may cause client or worker incongruence.

Solicit Clients for Feedback on Agency Effectiveness. Agencies provide services but often forget the importance of requesting client feedback, either formally or informally, as to how services are perceived by those who utilize them. The social worker may unintentionally assume that if clients make no complaints then all is well. This may be an erroneous supposition. For any number of reasons African American clients may not volunteer suggestions and comments that could be very valuable to the agency. For instance, they may not believe that their input will be taken seriously. Program evaluation should be a fundamental part of program operation. Clients can tell you not only what they need but can also identify community needs and resources.

Messo Level Considerations

Appreciate the Intragroup Distinctions that Exist among African Americans. Differences exist among African Americans on any number of variables such as historical life experiences of different age cohorts, geographic location, region of origin and the dominant cultural practices of that region, religious practices and spirituality, and level of acculturation. For instance, there may be variations in beliefs concerning religious traditions and dress codes among African Americans who belong to the same religious denomination. Many African Americans do not speak Black English, embrace hip-hop culture, or eat “soul food.” “Not all individuals within a particular minority culture share similar values and expressions of behaviors” (Whitler & Calantone, 1991, p. 461).

Appreciate the Diversity of Family Types Among African Americans. Be cognizant of the differences in family structures in order to accurately assess the family system and appreciate its strengths and challenges. Logan et al. (1990) differentiate between three types of family structures within the African American community. They are (a) the “nurturing or well functioning family,” which has a high level of functioning and in which boundaries are well defined and are open for change, (b) “mid-range functioning family” seen across all socio-economic levels, which has well defined but less flexible boundaries and tend to be less democratic in nature, and (c) the “dysfunctional family,” which does not operate cohesively and whose members lack self direction and healthy out-of-family relationships” (Dhooper & Moore, 2001, p. 127).

Macro Level Considerations

Do Not Discount Client's Perception of the Impact of Racism and Discrimination on Their Lives. Social workers sometimes minimize this impact or do not believe that the client's problem is a result of racism or discrimination. Subsequently the client may perceive that the social worker thinks that the client's problem is self created or a figment of his or her imagination. This issue will impede the development of client–worker trust. Racism and discrimination should be thoroughly explored from the client's perspective for an accurate assessment to be made.

Acknowledge the Historical Distrust of African Americans Toward the European Professional Community. An historical understanding of the nature of race relations and experiences would help a social work agency to better understand client resistance that might be encountered. One area of concern within the African American community that may have an impact upon its use of social work services has to do with the issue of participation in human experimentation. African Americans have, without their knowledge and consent, been used as human guinea pigs in scientific and medical experiments by private and governmental organizations (Lederer, 2005; Washington, 2007; Weasel, 2006). It is also believed by some African Americans that they have been injected with toxic substances, forced to eat human waste, and injected with syphilis-causing organism. Especially targeted were those individuals who were poor (Washington, 1994). Some of these beliefs are based on fact and may account for low client participation in agency programs, services, and clinical trials.

Include the African American Community in Program Development. Those responsible for agency program development should consult members of the African American community prior to and during program development. This signals that constituent input is important to the agency and may also lessen the likelihood of program underutilization.

All Agency Personnel Should Receive Diversity Training. Social workers can gain a wealth of knowledge about the issues and concerns affecting African Americans and the means of addressing them by attending forums where these issues are discussed. For instance Black History Month programs, many of which take place in African American churches, housing development tenant council meetings, African American church services, Urban League meetings, and community forums are but a few forums that can serve as mechanisms for learning about African American culture and issues that are germane to the community.

Regard the Impact of Social Policy. Because social policies often have broader effects than originally intended, policy makers should consider the short- and long-term implications of policy decisions on the African American community. The African American community's ability to access services is hampered by punitive policies. It is important to garner as much feedback from the African American community prior to policy development and implementation via avenues such as focus groups, surveys, and town meetings.

Promote Political Activism. Feelings of alienation from the political process are not uncommon among some members of the African American community (Randle, 2007). This perception is manifested at times through low voter participation. Social work agencies should identify mechanisms for ensuring that African Americans are involved in the political process and ultimately in policy formulation and implementation. Social workers should be active advocates for those within the African American community who feel disenfranchised and further should encourage their participation in the political process.

African Americans bring a unique richness to the American landscape via their history and culture. They are a heterogeneous group of people whose intragroup diversity affords social workers wonderful opportunities for professional development and personal growth. African Americans also face a multiplicity of challenges derived in part from long-standing institutional structures that have by design or evolution caused problems and issues for them on micro, macro, and messo levels. These issues will be ameliorated by helping professionals to the extent that social workers become sensitive to their needs and culturally competent in their practice.

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