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Black Teens: Better at Just Saying No?

In a world filled with temptations, high school teens are particularly vulnerable. But black teens may succumb to at least one temptation disproportionately less often than their white or Hispanic counterparts. Aggregated Gallup Youth Survey findings from 1999 to 2001* reveal that just 8% of black teens say they ever drink alcoholic beverages, as opposed to 25% of white teens and 19% of Hispanic teens.

Nor are black teens simply more likely to choose another popular drug, marijuana, instead. Reported marijuana use is also considerably lower for black teens (13%) than for white (21%) or Hispanic teens (26%)**.

As might be expected, the alcohol consumption trend is similar among adults. Forty-eight percent of black adults say they drink alcohol, compared to 65% of whites, a 17-point gap equal to that found among teens***.

High Levels of Religiosity

Assuming black teens aren't significantly less likely than white or Hispanic teens to admit their alcohol consumption, a number of theoretical factors are plausible. One, however, stands out -- the level of religiosity among both black teens and black adults exceeds that of any other race or ethnicity. Historically, the church is the heart and soul of the black community, as reflected in church attendance figures among African Americans. In fact, on the nine questions in Gallup's Congregational Engagement survey that measure the extent to which faith permeates an individual's life, blacks score considerably higher than either whites or Hispanics. Resulting data indicate that 27% of blacks are spiritually committed, compared to 16% of whites and 11% of Hispanics^ (see "Spiritual Commitment, by the Numbers" in Related Items).

According to Dr. Byron R. Johnson, director of the Center for Research in Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS) at the University of Pennsylvania, numerous studies support these observations. A 2002 CRRUCS report, Objective Hope, reviews 150 recent studies examining the relationship between religiosity and drug or alcohol use. "The vast majority of these studies demonstrate that participation in religious activities is associated with less of a tendency to use or abuse drugs or alcohol," said Johnson. "These findings hold regardless of the population under study or whether the research was conducted prospectively or retrospectively. The greater a person's religious involvement, the less likely he or she will initiate alcohol or drug use or have problems with these substances if they are used."

More Conservative Than Might Be Expected

Increased religiosity among black adults is often accompanied by a conservative moral framework that may provide a failsafe when it comes to alcohol consumption. Gallup analyses have shown that blacks are almost as likely to self-identify as "conservative" as are whites and are not significantly more likely to identify as "liberal." When asked about social issues in general, blacks and whites are statistically identical in their views. However, blacks' positions on key social issues are not uniform, but tend to vary on a case-by-case basis. For example, they are more liberal than whites on issues such as the death penalty, more conservative on homosexuality and gun laws, and about as conservative as whites on abortion questions.

Lower Income Bracket

Wholly apart from spirituality and ideology, one practical factor that may curb black drinking among teens and adults alike is income; black teens may simply have access to less pocket money on average with which to buy alcohol. According to the 2001 Census median income figures, black households earn an average of $29,500 annually, compared to $46,300 for white households. Among the overall adult population, stated alcohol consumption does indeed drop with income level. Most notably, 69% of adults who make between $30,000 and $49,999 annually say they drink, compared to about 50% of those who make less than $30,000.

Key Points

Teens are often maligned as a group, and black teens in particular tend to be subjected to negative stereotypes. But Gallup data suggest that black teens may resist peer pressure and use drugs and alcohol at a much lower rate than do white or Hispanic teens. It's equally important to note that high levels of religiosity in the black community may lead to lower levels among the issues that affect high school teens in large numbers: suicide, depression, sexual behaviors and delinquency.

*Findings for teens are based on Gallup Youth Survey aggregated data from telephone interviews with 1,503 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted in October 1999, October 2000, and in May 2001.

**Findings are based on Gallup Youth Survey aggregated data from telephone interviews with 1,003 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted in October 1999 and May 2001.

***Findings are based on 2,042 aggregated interviews from July 19-22 2001, and July 9-11 2002, Gallup Polls.

^Findings are based on telephone interviews with 729 adults members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community aged 18 and older, conducted October through November 2001.

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