When 2015 arrives with its usual Times Square revelry, you might find one group celebrating harder than the rest: black men.
With a relentless string of tragedies and disappointments befalling brothers, 2014 will stand out as a particularly morbid year. Black male deaths at the hands of men in blue hit headlines with dizzying frequency: Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, N.Y. Brandon Tate-Brown in Philly. Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio. Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. We can’t shake the pregnant coast-to-coast symbolism in it.
Even with the bright spot of Leon Ford’s acquittal on silly aggravated assault charges from the Pittsburgh police who shot him in 2013, the 21-year-old is still paralyzed for life.
Brothers are here, of course, but many of us feel missing. We’re on the stick but feeling stuck at the short end of it. The economy is improving, but the black male jobless rate is still officially 11 percent—more than double the national 5.9 percent rate. In New York City, where Garner died selling cigarettes, it’s officially 17 percent, something that police officers should have factored in before their fateful encounter with him. And those numbers don’t count the unofficial underemployment and off-the-grid rates that Shadow Stats can tell you all about.
While black male incarceration rates dipped slightly from 2000 to 2010, brothers were still six times more likely to find themselves in jail than white men, according to a Pew Research study—with the less educated being more likely institutionalized than employed. Adding insult to injury, a Young Invincibles study (pdf) finds that while black male college graduates sport a 92.8 percent employment rate, white males with no degree are cooking with gas at a similar 92.5 percent employment rate.
Even when everyone else in the U.S. was being saved from Ebola by the world’s most advanced health care system, black men Thomas Eric Duncan and Martin Salia did not survive. Ebola skipped around as another teasing odd stacked against us. So with the news of Brown, Garner and others already exploding, some of us gave one another that same odd look: Am I the only one noticing a pattern here? It was as if Ebola, unemployment and police brutality teamed up into one murderous white supremacist supervillain. Go ahead and make a Marvel movie out of that.
I’m not trying to drop another verse on the “extinct black man” lyric. That’s awfully played out and untrue. The Pew study mentioned above shows that fewer of us are going to jail, right? Turns out there are more brothers in college than in prison—so take that, stereotyping naysayers. Nor do we lament the black man’s plight at the expense of black women’s growing list of grief.
But for black men, these are undoubtedly strange and peculiar times. We are under the fire of law-enforcement bullets, yet we are also under the hot lights of scrutinizing legal and media microscopes when we—like Brown, Tate-Brown and Garner—get killed for other people’s mistakes. We have our black man president, but he will be hunkered down for a two-year Green Mile courtesy of red-necking Republicans. The rest of us feel burdened by the fear of target scopes amid the most routine tasks. Running out for an errand or a bite to eat is not a simple proposition. Black men are always cutting a cost-benefit calculus in the back of their minds.
We may also feel increasingly left out of or behind in a world defined by technological innovations and digital speed. In 2014, Google admitted to an overwhelmingly white male workforce, with only 2 percent of it African American, and other Internet companies followed suit. With those kinds of numbers, imagine how few brothers work in a space that shapes the very fabric of our society.
World IT analyst firm Gartner continues to predict a big data world that will present an enormous skills gap as jobs become more digital. Where will that leave the many black men who lag behind in education and training? We are like actor John Boyega in the opening scene from that controversial Star Wars trailer: a black man stranded, sweaty and disoriented, in the desert, looking for a way out of whatever mess he’s in.
All is not lost. Brothers aren’t dinosaurs at the receiving end of world-ending asteroids. Still, disparities and demons give us few breaks, institutions rip bullet holes through us and economies leave us scraping. Self-inflicted catastrophes can’t erase the knife-edged context of our grim reality, whether you are a beloved-no-more comedian or a has-been star running back looking for a team.
Obviously, several hundred years of history, from Nat Turner to Nelson Mandela, bear witness to infinite takes of black folks controlling their own agency even when the going gets tough. Here’s hope for less struggle in the next New Year. Good luck, good brothers.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.