Anyone who knows anything knows that it is hard to be a black man in America.
There’s endless data that backs up this declaration, from the disproportionate number of men of color targeted by law enforcement to programs like stop and frisk and the shooting of unarmed black boys like Trayvon Martin. Because of the many struggles that black Americans, and black men in particular, still face, comparisons between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal-rights movement and the ongoing black civil rights movement can still rub some black Americans the wrong way. Some have called the tension between different historically oppressed groups the “suffering Olympics,” as each group—from women to gay Americans to black Americans—believes they’ve had it worse.
But new data raises a surprising question: Among black men, is it easier to be a dual minority—to be both black and gay?
Conventional wisdom has been that no one has it tougher than racial minorities who are gay. One study found (pdf) that gay black teens are more likely to be homeless than gay teens from other racial groups. Other studies show that black men face a disadvantage in hiring. A notorious 2003 study (pdf) found that white men with a criminal record were more likely to be hired than black men without one.
All of which make results of new research published by Princeton sociologist David Pedulla so surprising. He conducted a résumé test among hundreds of employers, supplying some résumés with names more likely to be stereotyped as those of white applicants, and others with names more likely to be identified as those of black applicants. On some résumés, Pedulla indicated that the applicant had participated in a Gay Student Advisory Council. Among all the fictional applicants, the one with the name that sounded like a black male (Darnell) who participated in the Gay Student Advisory Council was more likely to be considered for the same starting salary as that of a heterosexual white male.
Those presumed to be white and gay and those presumed to be black and heterosexual were considered for lower salaries. So what does it all mean?
Well, for starters, it means that our country has evolved. But also that it hasn’t, in many ways. It’s great to know that gay black men have found a place of acceptance in the world, particularly in the working world—something that would have been hard to imagine a generation ago. But the potential underlying reason they may have found that place is troubling nonetheless.
Pedulla says, “There is some evidence that gay black men are perceived as less threatening than straight black men and that this difference accounts for a piece of the salary-recommendation difference between these two groups.” I didn’t need to read that sentence to see that coming.
Fear of the sexual power and prowess of black men has been at the root of the most horrifying acts of racial violence against black Americans, from the lynching epidemic of the early 20th century to the torture of young Emmett Till for supposedly flirting with a white woman in 1955. In previous interviews with The Root, Mark Potok, one of the country’s leading experts on hate groups, described an unhealthy obsession among many hate-group leaders with interracial sex, specifically the idea of black men “defiling” white women.
Now, I’m not comparing the average employer to a hate-group leader. But I am saying that even though our president is the product of a union between a black man and a white woman, and interracial families are our country’s fastest-growing demographic, the reality is that a fear that has been an ingrained part of our culture for centuries hasn’t dissipated after a few decades of integration.