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Wash U Professor To Study How Black Families Discuss Racial Violence With Children

Ferguson protest leader Brittany Ferrell helped gather people together to chant, "It is our duty to fight for our freedom," during a protest in South St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2014. The chant is based on a quote by Black Power activist Assata Shakur. Before leading the chant, Activist Ashley Yates told the group, "We know Black lives matter, and we know that we must fight to prove that.”
Rebecca Rivas
Missouri Independent
Ferguson protest leader Brittany Ferrell participates in a 2014 demonstration. Washington University researchers will examine how Black parents in Missouri talk to their children about racial violence, with the region still coming to terms with how former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown Jr. in 2014.

The National Science Foundation is funding a $697,914 research project led by a Washington University professor and other researchers to study how Black parents speak to their children about racial violence.

Sheretta Butler-Barnes, an associate professor in the Brown School at Wash U, will work with researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Over the next three years, they will follow 1,000 Black families in Missouri and Virginia to examine how parents speak to their children about what happens when Black people are killed or harmed as a result of racial violence and see how Black middle school and high school students cope with those incidents.

Barnes said there’s little research on how Black parents address racial violence. She and the other researchers will also study how a parent’s experience with racial violence influences the conversations.

“What is the stress level of parents engaging in these conversations, based on their own racialized experiences,” Barnes said. “It might be that they've encountered racialized experiences that might make them a bit hesitant, a bit fearful, a bit anxious, and even having to sit down and say, OK, you are going to be perceived this way.”

Barnes said she wanted to conduct the study in states that have had high-profile killings of Black people and where there was widespread anger and publicity. The researchers chose Missouri because the region is still coming to terms with how former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. They chose Virginia, noting a 2017 Unite the Right rally by white supremacists.

The researchers will check in with families to see if the family conversations lead young people to become civically engaged.

There is little research on how Black parents talk to their children when a Black person is killed, said Kellina Craig-Henderson, deputy assistant director for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation.

“We have not really explored the dynamics of development and socialization within African American families,” Craig-Henderson said. “This is one of the reasons why this work is as valuable as it is, because it is addressing a topic that has been understudied.”

Barnes said Black parents have long had to speak to their children following incidents of racial violence. She hopes the research will help researchers learn how families can better communicate with their children after such incidents.

“This work is really to increase the visibility and to create and have support systems for Black families who differ in their level of communication and having these very difficult conversations,” Barnes said.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.