Was there ever a real "self esteem" crisis for young minorities and women?

From the late 60’s onward it has often been claimed by various groups and researchers that American female and minority schoolchildren suffered from chronic social self esteem deficits, and that this was directly responsible for all manner of academic performance issues, dysfunctional behavior, and potential emotional/psychological issues in adulthood. These claims were seemingly taken as near gospel by many public policy decision makers and academics.

I was in high school in the early to mid 70’s and I always wondered about these claims at the time, as most of the girls I knew were not quite as aggressive as boys, but had no lack of self esteem, and neither did kids I knew who were minorities, especially back girls. In fact as I left college in the very early 80’s IIRC studies were being delivered that showed certain groups of minorities classified as socially dysfunctional (ie young black gang members) had just tons of self esteem.

Over the years women reached parity with men, and have now surpassed them academically with respect to college attendance and graduation rates. Black women in particular have done exceedingly well academically.

So I ask the question, did these claims that lack of “self esteem” was crippling female and minority academic performance ever have any basis is fact, or were these manufactured crises?

I don’t think that you can base your opinion on what you’ve seen with your own eyes. Women/minority members who get into college are the ones who had the self-esteem to do it, so seeing these groups in college with self-esteem is relatively meaningless. You have to look at the college demographic and how that compares with the national. And even then you’d also need to sample the income of the person’s parents since that probably is a deciding factor as well.

You might look at this PDF

For instance:

Certainly, being raised to believe in yourself does seem to have real world consequences.

The other documents to be found at http://www.americaninequalitylab.com/projects.php are all fairly interesting.

I think you need to define “self-esteem”;

If self-esteem means “Yeah, I think that I am at least as good as any member of my local social group”, then probably there never was any crisis.

If self-esteem means “I have confidence that I can rise to (with talent and hard work) and be accepted within any role in my greater society” then I suspect there really was a crisis.

How many women in the 1960s really believed they could become respected and accepted doctors?

How many black people in the 1960s really believed they could become respected and accepted lawyers?

I suspect, in both cases, the answer was “not many”. And given that, there is an argument to be made for the attitude of “F*&% it - I can’t possibly succeed in this system, why should I participate within it?”

To be clear I was speaking of my female and minority high school peers, not my college peers as having plenty of self eteem.

Was this in a low income area or average suburbia?

Mix of both.

Hm, well who knows I guess. Certainly the market is still dominated by white males, so it’s a bit hard to say anything. It could be that women have self-esteem but still felt it more important to focus on homeraising, that white men are more likely to promote white men, or who knows what.

And the belief that there could be a lot of low self-esteem if people raised their female/minority children in certain ways might have impressed upon them to not do it. Consider the Y2K bug or acid rain. Because they were viewed as being such a potential crisis, they were corrected and fixed and the complete lack of disastrous effects convinced people it had all been a load of hooey to begin with.

Not only do you have to define it, you have to figure out a way of measuring it. If it cannot be measured, then it’s not scientific.

Personally, I suspect that the whole “self esteem” craze was bogus. But I would be interested to see if the concept was put to a bona fide scientific test.

IIRC, one argument Thurgood Marshall put forward in Brown v. Board of Education was that segregation harmed black students’ self-esteem; and he presented psychological studies in support of the theory.

I’ve wondered about this.

At least for black male culture, the overt swagger that dominates the hiphop genre seems to bespeak a healthy (or, not) does of self esteem. What can you really say about a genre in which the principal topic of most rap songs is what an awesome rapper/pimp/gangsta the artiste is?

Then there are the surveys in which 66% black high school kids report that they’re confident they’ll become pro athletes (whites were pretty damn delusionally self-confident too, as 33% of them shared this moronic belief).

But that (to me) sounds like a lack of faith in the system/society, which is something totally different from lack of faith/esteem in oneself.

The level of one’s self-esteem is situational. A rapper who’s confident of his rhyming skills might not necessarily feel so confident in a situation where talents other than his own might be in demand.

Oh, and I don’t believe that 66% statistic; to what surveys are you referring?


Larry Elder looks to be a conservative pundit but I don’t have any reason to doubt the below squib, which mirrors many other citations on the net:

From reading your past posts, I know I can’t possibly hope to respond to you on a statistical basis, but I’d like to suggest another scenario to you and the OP that, in the situations where the two of you mention young females or males acting with seeming confidence, this might also indicate just the opposite – that they’re fronting.

They might be acting in a confident manner, when in reality they’re unsure and lacking a positive and healthy self-image and are, in fact, totally afraid, especially asked to step outside what they know. They might be putting up a brave, confident, even aggressive front in the wider world, but environments where they’ve spent most of their lives in or in endeavors with people very much like them give them the platform to proclaim that they’re “all that” (through behavior or words). This is probably much different than how they would really act if they were asked to behave or perform comfortably in a wider, more diverse world, where less is under their “control” and more scrutiny is placed on them and more feedback is possible.

Additionally, and as a partial hijack, it’s interesting how many innner-city black males who I’ve seen act in a super-confident and hypermasculine manner actually do so because they are not so sure of themselves. When it comes to projecting themselves as confident, mature young men, they are acting on a fantasy projected upon them by hip-hop culture and lack of guidance into manhood, and not because of anything that really comes from within, as true self esteem and healthy self-confidence would.

I think that there is probably some truth to that. If somebody feels “dissed” a lot of the time, it may be evidence that – notwithstanding their bravado – they have poor self esteem.

It seems to me there is superficial self esteem and there is deeper self esteem. As a parent, I am reluctant to shower my children with praise. Because it seems to me that will build self-esteem, but only at a superficial level. Better to do things that give the child a sense of self-accomplishment. For example, letting a child to use an adult tool to drive a nail or turn a screw home. Or letting the child navigate when you drive to the library.

That said, the problem I see is this: How do you measure self-esteem? Because if you can’t measure it, there’s no way to make or test any claims about it in a scientific manner.

There are probably psychological tests that are reasonably effective at measuring self-esteem. A guidance counselor might be able to assist a parent.

The Larry Elder piece does not aggree with the judge’s accessment and provides this question:

Besides, what special expertise does the judge have in evaluating the intelligence of blacks?

Self-esteem is not a bad thing. Unrealistic expectations are. When students aren’t allowed to experience honest feedback when they goof, that sends a confusing message. It’s not even good for their self-esteem. They know when they are being given grades they haven’t earned. And that makes them feel dumb.

When I went to college, Women had to be in their dorms every night at eight o’clock unless we signed out for the library or classes. At ten pm, the doors were locked. (Eleven on weekends.) The men’s dorms were never locked. They did not have to sign out and were free to come and go.

In 1993, I walked out of a Jeep dealership because I could not get a salesman to talk with me about the Jeep Sahara I had researched and wanted to buy. I would be paying for it. My husband was with me and wasn’t interested in buying a car, but the salesmen insisted on talking to him instead of me. I literally knew more about the Jeep than one of the salesmen did.

I had the highest score in my class on the Air Force Academy’s written entrance exam. (We all got to take it that year.) But I couldn’t have gotten in even if I had wanted to. I was a woman and the service academies discriminated against us So did Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and, as far as I know, Brown, Columbia, and Cornell.

Even here at the Dope there is a constant reminder of the uselessness of women. (“You pitch like a girl.”) or talk of women as if they are slabs of meat.

When you hear it all of your life, you don’t know any better. There are still plenty of women my age (mid-sixties) who think they are incomplete without a man.)

If you are a man, you may never have experienced powerlessness and you don’t know what it feels like. By the same token, I don’t think about my race or anyone else’s that much. Since I am white and haven’t had the problems that being a person of color can present, I don’t think about racial issues as much as some black people think that I might.

There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t hear a comment or have an experience that in someway treats me as a lesser person because of my gender. Keep in mind that the Equal Rights Amendment to our Constitution ** did not pass.**

I think that younger women don’t have as many esteem problems that are gender related. That’s great!

I’m not sure what your point is. Ok, so you were the victim of discrimination. And that hurt your self-esteem and made you less accomplished in life? Are you saying that discrimination, in general, damages peoples’ self-esteem and makes them less accomplished in life?

If so, how would one test your hypothesis?

Well, you are correct that bravado and crazy machismo are not necessarily consistent with true confidence, pride, etc. I’ve often thought that the phenomenon of pulling out guns for the slightest perceived “dis” smacked more of hysterical girl-fight reactions than any real strength.

This suggests to me that maybe the “self esteem” we’ve been teaching (or the kids have been learning) is more of a caricature of such.

Again, far from having any expertise here, and without even going into my specific experiences iof discrimination/damage as a black and gay man, hopefully I can suggest a couple of ways that could be measured – for groups such as women, people of color, gays, etc.

Looking at economic, educational and career achievement and diversity (or lack thereof) proportional to representation in the population (you didn’t think gay men largely became theatre and design people, or blacks domestics and sharecroppers, only cause we’re good at it, do you?), rates of depression and suicide and other things can all be quite telling. Sure, these incidents are largely about available opportunity but don’t you think those limitations can have a deeper, ongoing effect?

Can one design a fail-safe test that can specifically measure damaged self-esteem and find a definitive causal relationship to lower levels of achievement in the above areas, discounting all other factors? Most likely not. But studies of sociological and cultural history, as well as conditions prevalent for those groups (such as used in Brown) and follow-up with regard to changes in achievement once these differences are recognized would surely reveal that the basis issues regarding self esteem raised by the author has surely had an impact and was definitely not a phony one. And surely you can recognize that historical oppression and assignment of second (and even third) class status will have a psychological effect over those population treated thusly.

Not everything scientific can be precisely measured.