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Health, Science & Environment

Black teens in Columbus tend to feel less safe in familiar white neighborhoods, study shows

Brett Sayles
A study in Columbus showed that some Black teens felt less safe in familiar white areas.

Some Black teens in Columbus feel less safe in white neighborhoods – especially if they spent more time in those neighborhoods, a new study shows.

“We found that that may be because, rather than familiarity with the space reducing threat, familiarity actually reveals right to these youths,” said Christopher Browning, an Ohio State University professor and the study’s lead author.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, surveyed more than 1,400 Columbus 11 to 17-year-olds between 2014 and 2016. Browning said Columbus was a good place to conduct the study because it’s similar to most other large metro areas in terms of the Black population and its patterns of segregation.

“Meaning it’s a highly segregated urban area,” Browning said.

Participants received short surveys on their cell phones up to five times a day for about a week. They were asked about their experiences in the moment, Browning said.

“So, who are they with? How are they feeling? What kinds of activities are they engaged in?” he said.

The preteens and teens were also asked how safe they felt right there and then. The cellphones captured GPS information to pinpoint their locations.

"Rather than familiarity with the space reducing threat, familiarity actually reveals right to these youths.”
- Christopher Browning, OSU professor of sociology

Browning said the results showed that generally, Black participants felt less safe in largely white areas – and vice versa, though the affect on white teens was not as pronounced.

“In some ways that’s not surprising,” Browning said. “What surprised us most was what Black youth felt the least safe when they were in white neighborhoods. And those were youth who had, on average, spent more time in white neighborhoods.”

Browning said that while one might expect familiarity with the white neighborhoods to make Black teens more comfortable, the study showed just the opposite. Browning believes that’s because spending more time in those areas exposed Black teens to “concrete evidence” that they were not safe. He said that might include anything from microaggressions to overt discrimination.

“Which, unfortunately, is not a really optimistic finding when you think about the prospects for integration,” Browning said. “We of course much prefer to have Black youth who experience white neighborhoods to feel more comfortable with that based on their experience.”

“The inclination is that we need to make the spaces themselves more welcoming."
- Christopher Browning, OSU professor of sociology

Feeling safe matters as preteens and teens pursue developmental goals. Browning said feeling unsafe also has potential health consequences.

In another study with the same group of Black preteens and teens, Browning said he found higher concentrations of cortisol in hair – an indicator of chronic stress. Cortisol concentration has been shown to have effects on chronic disease.

Browning said he didn’t find the same cortisol concentration in white participants, suggesting the perception of safety may be particularly important when it comes to Black teen’s health.

Browning said that Black teens feeling less safe in white neighborhoods they know well suggests “there’s something going on in those neighborhoods.” He said there’s another, longer study underway to attempt to parse out exactly what’s happening.

“But the inclination is that we need to make the spaces themselves more welcoming,” Browning said.

He added that could also mean changes to policing, or over-policing of Black youth in white neighborhoods.

Health, Science & Environment HealthColumbusRacial Disparitiessafety
Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.