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While the violent behavior of youth continues to strike fear in the hearts of American citizens, the struggles of avoiding, engaging, and preventing violence from the adolescent's perspective are invisible. Crime statistics have shown that violent crime is lessening and has been doing so since the early 1980s (Brooks et al., 2000; Donohue et al., 1998). Still, like being in a horror flick, the American public seems more tantalized and afraid of violent images than actual violence, as this is evident in the proliferation of police--criminal--victim television series. The cultural phenomenology of Black youth has been theoretically modeled and researched by Spencer and colleagues (Spencer, 1995, 2001). We continue to add to the knowledge base on how the adolescents make meaning of their environments and how this meaning affects their interpersonal decision making. This paper seeks to identify how adolescent self-perceptions of their physical and psychological presence in the world influence their emotional and behavior options within a racially hostile, violence-saturated, and image-addicted social ecology.
Adolescent youth violence has legislators worried especially given the recent rash of school shootings in rural enclaves across the country (Donohue et al., 1998; O'Hanlon and Levine, 1998). Despite the overwhelming fear, there is little information to explain why these events occur, how they may differ for different groups of adolescents, and how we intervene with potential violent behavior. Arguably, African American youth are hardest hit by the impressions of media outlets that too often target them as the primary culprits of youth crime despite the reality (Hill and Madhere, 1996). Researchers have identified the discrepancy between the media's portrayal of violence committed by African Americans and the actual crime rates by African Americans in urban environments (Romer et al., 1998). Additionally, previous research has attempted to understand how the conundrum of negative media image, exposure to violence, perceived and experienced fear of potential violence, and anger expression can contribute to res ilient and risky behavior in Black youth (Anderson, 1999). Interventions must understand how images affect the emotions and behavior and particularly for African American youth who appropriate these images as they attempt to reject them (Hill et al., 1996; Hill and Madhere, 1996; Thompson, 1996; Zimmerman et al., 2000). Our intention here is to increase our understanding of the psychological particularities of African American youth aggression within unique ecological contexts. This information can be used to develop culturally relevant intervention models to reduce the exacting of aggression where it is not necessary and provide multiple options in situations which youth feel violence is necessary.
Understanding the Cultural Phenomenology of Aggression Among African American Youth
Fighting in school and neighborhood contexts among African American youth is a very important phenomenon when we consider the concern about safety in the school context where most youth spend their daily hours. Black and minority youth compared to White youth are more likely to be victims of violence in elementary and junior high school settings (Hill, 1998). Exposure to violence statistics show male ethnic minorities are more likely to witness and experience violence (Buka et al., 2001). Factors that influence or are related to the increase of fighting behavior of youth include alcohol usage (Corvo, 2000), drug addiction (McGarvey et al., 1996; Nurco et al., 1997), carrying weapons and supportive attitudes for violence (Cotton et al., 1994), teasing (Mooney et al., 1991), disagreements over boyfriend relationships (Cousins and Mabrey, 1998), and lack of family support (Arriaga and Oskamp, 1998; Paschall et al., 1996). It is our contention that violence prevention initiatives must understand not only the beh aviors of youth who engage in or are victims of these acts, but also the surrounding perceived emotional, cultural, gender, and ecological demands that influence their self- and other-perceptions. In effect, we are preoccupied with the phenomenological and meaning-making processes that Black youth engage in as they negotiate various social interactions.
One cultural-phenomenological factor that has received attention in community violence prevention is the perception of danger (Garbarino et al., 1992; Stevenson, 1997). Whether students understand what is dangerous and what is not is irrelevant when we consider that those events perceived as dangerous are still dangerous in the minds of youth and will govern their fight and flight reactions. Stevenson (1997) found that students who showed higher levels of calamity fear were less likely to demonstrate high levels of acting out anger and anger suppression, while more likely to show anger control in tense situations. Fear of real or perceived danger is therefore considered to be a protective factor for Black youth. This is mostly true, however, for youth who live in neighborhoods they define as dangerous. There is a both-and quality to this fear, however. Sometimes the perception of danger can lead youth to carry weapons when they feel isolated to manage the violence tension alone and without family support (Ho ward et al., 2002; Zimmerman et al., 1998).
Ironically, cultural and ecological demands on the gender identity development of Black youth often judge concern or fear of one's safety as "sweet," "soft," and weak. To demonstrate toughness is better than fear in the public arena of adolescent identity politics; what Spencer et al. (1995) call "reactive coping." Stevenson (1997) found that male bravado or the lessened fear of potential calamity can be a risk factor for anger expression and that as a male characteristic may represent a salient cultural issue that warrants intensive resocialization. Conversely, to be naturally afraid (and thus cautious) of potential calamity may increase one's chances of survival even if it may inhibit one's identity formation as "hardcore" or as a "roughneck." This would be what Grant et al. (2000) identify as "avoidant coping" and has protective outcome implications for Black youth under intense societal and cultural stress.
Herein lies an example of the Catch-33 "both-and" politics that Stevenson and Davis (in press) have articulated. Sometimes, being aggressive is to be cool and ably meets the social status demands of an adolescent culture. To be cool is to survive, but to be so cool that one hides the fear of actual danger is to become endangered. Endangered and cool. And if you are so endangered and persist in not perceiving calamity accurately, death or injury is disproportionately probable. Dead and cool. Such a situation was aptly described in Gwendolyn Brooks's famous poem "We Real Cool."
Another cultural-phenomenological marker for stigma and violence in our society is physical maturation. Early maturing Black youth (or "Big-boned") could be at a major disadvantage as they interact with a society that has negative images of adult-looking Black youth (Ge et al., 2002; Spencer et al., 1998; Swanson and Spencer, 1997). Late-maturing youth (or "Baby-faced") may also find themselves at a disadvantage if this status represents an inferiority they feel they must overcome. Ge et al. (2002) found that African American youth who are early maturers were more likely to be in relationships with deviant peers and engaged in externalizing behaviors, but that this relationship between pubertal transition and externalization was significant when one's family monitoring and neighborhood safety conditions were disadvantaged. Teenage girls who look older than their age are attractive to older males and are exposed to different social statuses (O'Sullivan et al., 2000). Early-maturing boys more likely to be mist aken for adults will incur more fearful and controlling strategies by authority figures. Their "looks" as it were could attract a different set of social hassles (Spencer et al., 1998). So how youth present themselves to the world or how the world perceives them become very challenging life realities; that is, when one's physical maturity interacts and clashes with societal images. We also know that being a member of a stigmatized group affects one's psychological adjustment, such that being perceived as problematic leads to the increased identification of inferiorizing interactions (Gomez and Trierweiler, 1999). Physical maturation may serve as a marker for stigma when associated with race and is a very important social factor that may influence one's emotional adjustment.
A third phenomenological variable of interest is anger expression. The expression of anger of Black youth is also a stereotypic image but also a reality among youth who are frustrated with their racial status in life. The public will interpret the anger of Black youth differently and see this anger as a marker of potential danger or impending harm. Anger expression has long been a …