There’s an old saying that “if White America has a cold, Black America has the flu.”

Well, that old saying is now being backed up with brand new data. A report recently released by the Center for Promise, the research institute of the national non-profit America’s Promise Alliance, found that experiencing “multiple adversities” as a young person increases a child’s risk for performing poorly in school or dropping out altogether.

While White youth are “more likely” to grow up without ever experiencing adversity, the study shows that Black youth had the highest rates of experiencing three or more adversities during childhood. The study also found that experiencing adversity (which the study defines as things like poverty, domestic or neighborhood violence and parental incarceration) leads to “increased risk of chronic disease, alcohol and drug use and mental health concerns in adulthood.”

These statistics are particularly close to the heart of rapper, Common, who, even having been raised in one of Chicago’s largest Black middle-class communities, was not immune to the crime and violence of the city’s South Side.  We caught up with the Grammy-Award winner and 2017 America’s Promise Alliance award recipient to discuss the study, his own experiences with youth trauma and solutions to improve these stats going forward.

EBONY: You’ve talked about being from Chicago in the past. Think back to some of the people you knew growing up and talk about how easy it is for young people to go down the wrong road once they’ve experienced tragedy or adversity in their lives.

Common: I would describe my neighborhood as the Black lower-middle class, but I definitely knew families who had been stricken by drugs and gang culture.  I was blessed to have a mother who tried to keep me on the right path and I had friends who also had well-meaning mothers, but simply ended up getting caught up in the jail system. I had one friend specifically who we called a “hot head.”  We didn’t know the root of that was because he had just lost his mom and his father was dealing with drugs.  He ended up getting into trouble [as an adult]. Also, because my mother was a teacher, she would bring her students to our house. Some of them had been sexually abused, others had been dealing with violence or the loss of loved ones, some of them had parents who were on drugs and I always felt like “Man, thank you God for giving me a mother,” and I want to help people who haven’t had the chance to get this type of love and support.

EBONY: Is your desire to help people the reason why you’re raising awareness about this study?  

Common: The work they do aligns with what I believe. Society needs to look at the people who have been oppressed and reach for our people.  And I’m talking Black people, Brown people, and the poor people of America.

EBONY: Let’s get into the study.  Did anything you read shock you? If so, what did you find most jarring?

Common: No, I didn’t find anything about this study to be shocking, because I can see.  People who have been affected by violence have less of a chance of succeeding and in many ways are already deemed by society as people who are going to fail.  I’m not a person who functions just strictly on numbers, so when you hear percentages sometimes they make you say “Wow. That’s high,” but I can’t event act like I was shocked.

EBONY: There are people who will read this study and say, “Black people are no strangers to adversity. These young people just need to make better choices,” or that these children simply lack good character. How do you respond to remarks like that?

Common: I say take the time to get close with the individuals or the community you may be talking about. When you meet people, you understand that these are human beings who want happiness like you do. I don’t think anybody—and I’m telling you from the experience of growing up around 87th—said, “Man. I just want to go out and shoot people,” or “I want to go out and sell drugs.” They were put in a situation and they’re trying to figure out a way as a teenager, or as a young adult, “how am I going to survive in this?”


EBONY: What’s the most important thing we should take away from this unfortunate trend? Can you tell the world why we should care?

Common: Kids are our future and prized possessions, but they can’t do it by themselves.  The reason I’m here and able to talk to you is because I had support.  We have to [help], especially when a child is put in a situation of neglect or lives in a poor neighborhood. As an adult, it’s difficult to deal with those things, so what do you expect kids to do? We must look at that adversity and show compassion towards it and make an effort towards changing it.

Click here to access the “Barriers to Success: Moving Toward a Deeper Understanding of Adversity’s Effects on Adolescents” report.