By Lauren Camera
December 31, 2015
As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs an affirmative action case that's sparked controversial debate over whether African-American students can succeed at elite universities, a new study shows that those who do may be doing so at the risk of their own health.
The study, from researchers at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education and Human Development, argues that researchers are overlooking a looming mental health crisis for black college students who have had to draw on "grit" – mental toughness and perseverance – to achieve in predominantly white academic institutions.
The study's authors, Ebony McGee and David Stovall, argue that while being resilient is required for any college student, black students bear the additional burden of proving their intellectual worth in the face of overt or covert racism. And that takes a toll, both mentally and physically.
"Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments," explained McGee, assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt. "We have documented alarming occurrences of anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as a host of physical ailments like hair loss, diabetes and heart disease."
Grit is a popular buzzword in the education world used to describe the type of determination and stick-to-itiveness students must embrace if they want to succeed. And it's become especially associated with the success of students from disadvantaged communities and communities of color, where schools are often understaffed and under-resourced, where there's higher levels of drugs and violence and where students may not have strong support systems at home.
But there's an ongoing debate about how much emphasis should be placed on teaching students grit, and whether it masks underlying problems, like the need for additional funding or more social workers. Or, as it applies to higher education, pushing colleges to recognize the additional challenges African-American students face in earning a degree.
"Those who are struggling with the multiple burdens associated with being a black student must be protected against daily discrimination," said Stovall, who is an associate professor of African-American studies and education policy at University of Illinois at Chicago. "In contrast to research that concludes with messages of the need for grit and a tougher mental attitude, a more holistic perspective focuses on gaining a thorough understanding of the psychological, emotional and mental harm these students endure."
The study's authors termed this phenomenon "John Henryism," after historical figure John Henry, a slave who literally worked himself to death in order to prove his worth.
"John Henryism is a coping strategy often adopted by high-achieving African Americans, who may unconsciously (and increasingly consciously) sacrifice their personal relationships and health to pursue their goals with a tenacity that can be medically and mentally deleterious," the study states.
The study comes on the heels of controversial comments made by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during oral arguments for the affirmative action case, Fisher v. the University of Texas. During oral arguments, he posited that African-American student may benefit more from attending "slower-track" institutions – remarks for which he was instantly skewered and which ignited debate about the credibility of mismatch theory.
"The process of healing from racial battle fatigue and institutional racism requires significant internal commitment and external support," the study states. "Black college students are brilliant, talented, and creative, and they dream as big as other students. Pursuing higher education should not make them sick."