A University of Chicago professor argued that young males in urban settings need more public support at an event at 8 Prospect Pl. on Thursday.

About 20 sociology department graduate and doctoral students gathered to hear urban education professor Margaret Spencer suggest how the federal and state governments, as well as private companies, can assist adolescent males in urban settings. Although many of these youths have the resiliency to overcome obstacles that are caused by low socioeconomic status or minority ethnicity, Spencer said communities fail to provide these males with effective support systems.

“All humans are vulnerable,” she said. “We need to better use governmental and private sector resources to provide incentives and support.”

Spencer attributed harmful actions of young males to a “bravado orientation,” or hyper-masculine attitude, which promotes mistreatment of women as acceptable, danger as exciting and violence as manly. To combat this mindset, Spencer created an experiment in which youths rafted, hiked and discussed cultural issues around the campfire on a 10-day outdoor adventure. After the camping trip, they displayed lower bravado.

Spencer said all her experiments stem from a sociological theory she developed that claims that the public often connects risk factors, such as low socioeconomic status, to outcomes, such as criminal activity. But more steps fall in between, she said: Risk factors lead to stress, which triggers a variety of coping strategies, which transform identities and can lead to detrimental behavior.

Through her research over 37 years, Spencer said programs that instill a more positive self-image promote high achievement in academics among students and help reduce neighborhood crime. She said people of the same race or ethnicity should practice “conceptual segregation” and form exclusive groups to discuss their cultural identity.

Spencer stressed that the media portray urban youths as troublemakers because they are only shown when they commit crimes. But the media fails to present those who are resilient and capable of overcoming adversity.

In a survey study she conducted, black students were more likely to drop out of school if they believed that whites are valued higher than blacks.

And in another experiment, Spencer found that when students were given monetary incentives to do better in school, they improved more than those who did not have these incentives. After she stopped giving them incentives, they continued to excel, and from this success, they felt legitimized in their accomplishments and thus attain a more positive view of themselves.

“It was an identity shift,” she said.

Three students interviewed after the meeting said they have studied her work previously and found her theory to be helpful in their research.

The talk was part of the Sociology Colloquium Series. The next installment will be Ohio State University sociology professor Doug Downey giving a talk entitled “Two Cheers for American Schools: Thinking Clearly about Schools and Social Problems.”