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For immediate use

Jan. 24, 2000 -- No.34

Despite common beliefs, study shows young blacks have higher self-esteem

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Some early research on self-esteem, which involved having children pick from differently colored dolls the one they preferred to play with, suggested that black children in the United States had lower self-esteem as a group than white children.

A new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill investigation, however, strongly suggests that the reverse may be true.

UNC-CH psychologists analyzed 261 studies in which self-esteem in both white and black children was assessed. The studies involved more than a half-million participants.

"Our analyses revealed slightly higher scores for combined black children, adolescents and young adults than for their white counterparts," said Dr. Bernadette Gray-Little, professor of psychology. "The analyses further revealed that such characteristics as age and socioeconomic status influenced the size and direction of racial differences in self-esteem."

The complete report by Gray-Little and UNC-CH psychology doctoral student Adam R. Hafdahl has just been published in the January issue of Psychological Bulletin, a professional journal.

Differences in self-esteem were small, but statistically significant considering the large number of studies included, she said. The youngest black children -- those under age 10 -- tended to have slightly lower scores than the youngest white children, but this difference disappeared as the children passed age 10. Then blacks thought somewhat better about themselves than whites did. The self-esteem advantage for black adolescents was more pronounced in studies with more girls than boys.

"Provided that self-esteem scores for both black and white young people are equally variable with normal, or bell-shaped, distributions, our results suggest that the average black young personís self-esteem is higher than that of about 56 percent of white young people," she said. "Put another way, the average black young personís self-esteem falls at about the 56th percentile of self-esteem for white children and adolescents.

"The 50th percentile would correspond to no difference between the groups. Although this difference may not be large in any absolute sense, we are confident that it reflects a true difference that is consistent across a wide variety of studies."

Perhaps ironically, Gray-Little said, wealthier black children do not have the same self-esteem advantage as their less-wealthy peers. That might be because they often find themselves in school or other settings where they are relatively few in number compared to wealthier whites. Other studies have shown that both black and white children who constitute a very small minority in a school setting can suffer lower self-esteem than if they feel like they are part of a group.

Young blacks might experience slightly higher self-esteem overall because they often have a strong ethnic identity, while many young whites do not, she said.

The psychologists became interested in the topic because much research already has been done on racial differences in self-esteem. Many people assumed that blacks would have lower self-esteem because they belonged to a disadvantaged minority, and some research supported that view, while other work did not.

"We wanted to look at a large number of studies conducted over a long period to see if by putting them all together we would be able to detect consistent patterns," she said.

The researchers collected all the relevant studies they could, including unpublished doctoral dissertations from across the United States, to carry out their analyses. The better the test used to measure self-esteem in the various studies, the more likely they were to find higher self-esteem overall among blacks, Gray-Little said.

"Many of our findings -- for example, that the self-esteem advantage for black participants increased with age and was related to the sex composition of the sample -- underscore the need for long-term studies of self-esteem development in males and females of both racial groups," she said.

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Note: Gray-Little can be reached at (919) 962-3990 or