Perceived Racist Discrimination, Coping, Stress, and Life Satisfaction

By Barnes, Peter W.; Lightsey, Owen Richard, Jr. | Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Perceived Racist Discrimination, Coping, Stress, and Life Satisfaction


Barnes, Peter W., Lightsey, Owen Richard, Jr., Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development


In this study, avoidance coping and problem-solving coping (inversely) predicted stress, and stress and avoidance coping inversely predicted life satisfaction among 114 African American students. Coping did not moderate racial discrimination stress or stress-life satisfaction relationships. Fostering problem solving and reducing avoidance may help to alleviate racism-related stress and foster well-being.

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Despite overall improvements in racial attitudes and sociopolitical policy since the Civil Rights movement, racism remains pervasive in America (Clark, Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999). Racial discrimination is commonly found in employment and housing practices (Basic Behavioral Science Task Force of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1996) and is reflected by the socioeconomic gulf between European Americans and African Americans (Harrell, 2000). In one study (Klonoff & Landrine, 1999), 96% of African Americans reported experiencing racist discrimination in the past year.

Jones (1972) defined racism as resulting "from the transformation of race prejudice and/or ethnocentrism through the exercise of power against a racial group defined as inferior, by individuals and institutions with the intentional or unintentional support of the entire culture" (p. 117). Racist discrimination, therefore, refers to the behavioral manifestations of racism: "actions designed to maintain own-group characteristics and favored position at the expense of members of the comparison group" (Jones, 1972, p. 4).

Differing definitions of "objective racism" and ethical concerns about experimental manipulation of racism (Fischer & Shaw, 1999) have led to studies that assess individuals' perception of discrimination. Because such individual appraisal of situations determines the stress response (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), subjective appraisals of racism may be central to mental health.

perceived racist discrimination and mental health

Clark et al.'s (1999) biopsychosocial model asserts that perceived racial discrimination (PD) leads to stress, which in turn leads to negative health outcomes. The relationship between stress and negative health outcomes is mediated or moderated by constitutional, sociodeomographic, psychological, and behavioral factors and by coping responses.

Clark et al. (1999) presented strong evidence for the link between PD and physiological and psychological stress responses among African Americans, including higher blood pressure (Armstead, Lawler, Gorden, Cross, & Gibbons, 1989); intrusive thoughts, images, and feelings (Thompson, 1996); anger (Armstead et al., 1989); and perceived stress (Utsey & Ponterotto, 1996). A growing body of research also confirms the link between stress and diverse physiological and psychological problems (Basic Behavioral Task Force of the National Advisory Mental Health Counsel, 1996). For example, Klonoff, Landrine, and Ullman (1999) found that experienced racism was strongly related to total psychiatric symptoms, somatization, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, and anxiety among African Americans. PD also has negative effects on global personal self-esteem, frequency of negative emotions such as depression and helplessness, collective self-esteem (Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey, 1999), and life satisfaction (Broman, 1997), although use of a single-item measure of life satisfaction and an unvalidated PD measure in Broman may limit generalizability.

moderators of racism-related effects

Recently, researchers (Clark et al., 1999; Fischer & Shaw, 1999; Klonoff et al., 1999) have stressed the need for study of the factors that may buffer or moderate the relationship between PD and mental health. Discovering such variables is particularly important for the practice of counseling (Fischer & Shaw, 1999), because, unlike racism and mental health outcomes, moderators such as coping strategies and beliefs are often readily malleable, provide clear clinical foci, and have important effects among diverse populations.

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