As a rapidly diversifying nation, the United States is marked by profound racial inequalities. Non-White youth represent more than half of U.S. children (US Census Bureau, 2014). Yet, in a recent nationwide study, data suggest that almost one-in-four non-White youth experience racial discrimination in the past year (Jones et al., 2019), let alone the structural and institutional barriers that they frequently experience relative to their White peers. My research program examines the short- and long-term consequences associated with specific perpetrators of racial discrimination. Specifically, I take a multi-method, multidisciplinary, and collaborative approach to investigate: (1) why distinguishing between perpetrators of racial discrimination matters, (2) what are the direct and intergenerational consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system, and (3) what are opportunities that peers, educators, and families can leverage to reduce the negative effects of unwarranted involvement in the criminal justice system on children’s wellbeing.

Distinguishing Between Perpetrators Matters for Youth Development

My consistent finding across multiple datasets is that discrimination from peers is especially influential to psychological outcomes relative to discrimination from other perpetrators. This work has resulted in first-authored publications in Child Development and the American Psychologist. For example, among a small-scale longitudinal study of early adolescents, those who reported more frequent discrimination from peers also reported lower affect and belonging to their racial group one year later, but discrimination from adults did not (Del Toro, Hughes, & Way, 2020). In a separate study, I drew data from a large national sample of Black, Latino, and Asian American students enrolled in 28 elite colleges and universities over the course of their first four years in college. Among these students, frequent discrimination from peers (but not professors) during their first year in college predicted greater depression and poorer self-rated health statuses in their fourth year (Del Toro & Hughes, 2019). These findings led me to write a conceptual paper in which I synthesized the literature regarding the role of peers on adolescents’ neural circuitry as the core basis of my argument for why scholars should study discrimination from peers separately from other sources (Del Toro & Hughes, in prep). The distinction between perpetrators has methodological implications as combining multiple perpetrators into a single measure can weaken significant findings when one perpetrator predicts an outcome, whereas another perpetrator does not. The specification of the perpetrator of discrimination can also inform setting-specific interventions; for adolescents of color, the peer context may be an optimal target for interventions working to improve the wellbeing of all youth.

How the Criminal Justice System Shapes Racial Inequities among Children

Capitalizing on the aforementioned studies, discrimination from non-peers (i.e., law enforcement and the criminal justice system) can also have indirect and pernicious consequences on youth development. This work has resulted in a series of publications, including first-authored publications in the American Journal of Public Health and Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS). For example, in a small-scale longitudinal study of urban Black and Latino boys in a large southern city in the US, boys who reported more frequent stops by police also reported greater engagement in delinquent behavior and greater psychological distress 6, 12, and 18 months later. Neither delinquent behavior or distress predicted stops. Furthermore, distress partially mediated the relations between stops at baseline and delinquent behavior 12 and 18 months later (Del Toro et al., 2019). Building on this research, I replicated these findings in two daily diary studies (Del Toro, Jackson, & Wang, 2022), and I examined how children may also experience the negative effects of the criminal justice system through their parents (Del Toro, Fine, & Wang, 2022). Whereas past research examines the consequences of policing on crime rates and on adult samples, I use a developmental framework to understand the effects of policing on racial minority children’s  mental health and wellbeing. Collectively, these studies have political implications given the hotly contested debate about whether increases in police surveillance and incarceration result in increases in citizens’ safety. In addition, these studies challenge the rhetoric that individuals’ engagement in illegal and delinquent behaviors elicit police intervention. Instead, as my research shows, frequent police surveillance and incarceration come at a cost to the mental health and wellbeing of children of color.

Mitigating the Negative Consequences Associated with the Criminal Justice System

Using a similar ecological framework to distinguish between perpetrators of discrimination, I am examining setting-specific strength-based approaches that mitigate the negative effects of police surveillance on African American youth’s wellbeing. I was awarded a small internal grant (role: PI, $30,000), support from the National Institutes of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD; role: PI, $45,000), and a grant from the Spencer Foundation (role: PI, $75,000) to investigate how racial socialization from different agents (i.e., peers, educators, and parents) buffers the negative effects of police stops on African American youth’s development. Racial socialization is defined as the behaviors, practices, and social regularities that communicate information and worldviews about race to youth (Hughes, Harding, Niwa, Del Toro, & Way, 2017). Whereas most studies focus on racial socialization from parents, my research suggests that racial socialization from educators (independent of that from parents) promotes greater engagement (Del Toro & Wang, 2021) and better grades in school (Del Toro & Wang, 2020). This research can provide scientists with information regarding which setting is optimal to intervene and reduce the harmful effects of policing on racial minority youth’s mental health.

Integrating Behavioral Genetics and Social Science Methods to Understand Racial Inequality

My future research includes utilizing gene-environment approaches to study race-related dynamics (i.e., discrimination, identity, and socialization). I have acquired support and training to conduct such research from the Russell Sage Foundation, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, and the American Society of Human Genetics. Specifically, I am performing secondary data analyses of existing twin-sibling datasets to build a literature basis for me to lead primary data collection of a pilot study of race-related processes among twins of color. For instance, in one project, I am examining whether a twin who reports more racial discrimination also shows poorer adjustment relative to his/her twin sibling reporting less racial discrimination. Because existing work examines whether race-related processes differ between individuals, such studies likely produced biased estimates due to differences between individuals in both their genetics and environments. Relative to prior research, I use twins to examine the effects of such processes within twin dyads after accounting for their shared genetics and environments, enabling me to test my research questions within a natural- and quasi-experimental framework.