Career Counseling for African Americans

Early in the 21st century there continues to be economic disparities between racial ethnic groups. The latest census indicated that Asian American couples had the highest average annual earnings at about $57,500 per year, followed by Caucasian Americans at roughly $49,000, then Hispanics with $39,241, and finally African Americans at about $30,000 per year. There are three times as many African American males imprisoned as there are in college. In the state of Tennessee, 80% of the people living in poverty are women and children, and African American women are over represented in those numbers. While African American youths are closing the high school graduation rate between them and White American youths, African Americans still tend to be overrepresented in low-pay/low-skill jobs and underrepresented in high-skill and professional jobs, although African American youths have equivalent career aspirations as those of their White counterparts.

Given these continuing seemingly intractable facts one wonders how a career counselor can make a difference. Certainly many authors have maintained that traditional career counseling theories do not easily fit this population. Although social cognitive career counseling has shown some promise of being broad enough to include African Americans, some scholars maintain that perhaps the entire field of career counseling needs to be refocused for some populations away from career decision making and toward theories of work. A career implies a directional succession of jobs or work that is driven by choice and intentionality. Individuals who are dealing with poverty, the prison system, and other societal barriers are often working at any job that meets their survival and basic human needs versus working toward a career. It could be, however, that even in these situations an appropriate career development theory coupled with an effective assessment method and intervention could be useful.

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Factors That Influence Career Development

Theorists have proposed that an individual’s career choice is affected by layers of interacting factors that can be depicted as a set of expanding circles. At the core of the circles are biological factors. They suggest that our genes influence our predispositions to certain types of behaviors, emotions, and psychological traits that may tend to lead us to one type of career or job as opposed to another. It could be that as we continue to understand the human genome those predilections will become clearer.

Next are gender factors. In the United States significantly more males than females are found in realistic occupations, and more females are in the social occupations as defined by the Holland Hexagon. Society seems to begin to push boys and girls toward different activities and careers when they are very young.

The theorists next propose that careers are influenced by families and the families’ life circumstances. It is not unusual to see families in which several generations are doctors, politicians, or involved in the criminal justice system. An African American male child with a parent in the criminal justice system is over 50% more likely to also be involved with that system. It is very difficult for African Americans born into poverty to rise out of that poverty. If the parents, however, push education, then the child has a greater chance of entering the middle class. African American parents do have a great deal of influence on a child’s interest in education.

Racial and ethnic subgroups are theorized to have an impact on career development and career choices of the groups’ members. Although race and ethnicities are often viewed as social constructions, some work suggests that there is a racial identity development phenomenon and that individual behavior and even approaches to career decision making is influenced by that identity development process. Even in integrated settings racial and ethnic groups often divide along racial lines. In her book, My Freshman Year, Rebekah Nathan noted that in the dining hall of a large predominantly White university the Black students sat with each other as did the Whites, the Asians, and so on. Even though some authors have stated that today’s college students, called Milennials, are more desegregated than ever, it was among this group that Nathan noted her findings. So it is reasonable to assume that the people with whom one spends time are likely to influence one’s career development and career decisions.

Finally, the dominant or majority group has an impact on career and job outcomes. Structural factors, perceptions, and barriers can determine whether or not one can rise in the corporate culture or even get in the door. It is in this circle that sexism, racism, or the other isms exist and help determine career choice or lack thereof.

It is important for a career counselor to explore all five of the interacting circles if he or she is to have a meaningful interaction with an African American individual. In order to explore the factors in the circles one needs good assessment instruments. Two practical instruments described next can be used in applied settings.

Cultural Assessments

It is important for the counselor to develop some understanding about African Americans if the counselor is to offer an effective intervention. It is just as important for the client to gain some clarity about his or her career questions. To help the counselor and client, researchers developed the Multicultural Career Counseling Checklist and the Client Career Counseling Checklist.

The Multicultural Career Counseling Checklist encourages counselors to make sure they are familiar with African American culture in context with the majority White American culture. Such understanding includes familiarity with class, family, gender, and structural factors. The counselor is also directed to understand personal racial identity development and the racial identity development of the client.

The Career Counseling Checklist is given to clients prior to any interventions. Clients are asked to think about matters that include abilities, cultural issues, career knowledge and behaviors, self-confidence, secret daydreams, and so on. The counselor can use the information to establish an appropriate intervention, though the counselor may still be unsure where to begin.

Steps to Multicultural Career Assessment

Researchers recommend that counselors begin with cultural variables, including worldviews, racial identity development, and structural factors such as barriers imposed by class or racism. Sometimes when these barriers are explored, the career questions are answered at that step.

Other times one must move to gender variables including asking African American men and women about how they were socialized in their respective gender roles, work-home salience, and even extended family expectations. The counselor may then need to explore the client’s level of confidence in self, ability to do the job, or even ability to overcome social and structural barriers. It is only after all the above areas are explored that moving to traditional assessment instruments like the Strong Interest Inventory or interventions like a career shadowing experience is recommended.

If a counselor will explore the cultural factors that influence career development, prepare him- or herself and the client through a thorough cultural assessment, and follow the steps to multicultural career assessment, then the intervention is likely to be more effective whether one is helping a client prepare for a job or a career.


  1. Blustein, D. L., (2006). The psychology of work: A new perspective for career development, counseling and public policy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Cross, W. E. (1971). Negro-to-Black conversion experience; Toward a psychology of Black liberation. Black World, 20, 13-27.
  3. Fouad, N. A., & Bingham, R. P. (1995). Career counseling with racial and ethnic minorities. In W. B. Walsh & S. H. Osipow (Eds.), Handbook of vocational psychology: Theory, research and practice (2nd ed., pp. 331-366). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  4. Helms, J. E. (1990). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  5. Holland, J. L. (1985). Making vocational choices (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  6. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., Sheu, H., Schmidt, J., Brenner, B. R., Gloster, C. D., et al. (2005). Social cognitive predictors of academic interests and goals in engineering: Utility for women and students at historically Black universities. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(1), 84-92.
  7. Nathan, R. (2005). My freshman year: What a professor learned by becoming a student. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  8. Ward, C. M., & Bingham. R. P. (2001). Career assessment for African Americans. In W. B. Walsh, R. B. Bingham, M. T. Brown, & C. M. Ward (Eds.), Career counseling for African Americans (pp. 27-28). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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