The tragic and spiraling plight of black men in American society has reached such epic proportions that the national paper of record, the New York Times, is discussing the “disappearance” of African-American men from civil society. “The stigmatization of blackness presents an enormous obstacle,” it notes, “even to small boys.”
The editorial, “Forcing Black Men Out of Society,” followed on the heels of another Times story that found 1.5 million African-American men were “missing” from everyday life because of incarceration and early death, leaving devastated communities, impoverished families, and a cycle of stigma, shame and hopelessness in their wake. The numbers are startling: For every 100 black women ages 25-54 who are not incarcerated, there are only 83 men. In Ferguson, Mo., that number shrinks to 60.
The New York Times analysis and editorial noting that 1 in 6 black men have simply disappeared from daily life in America are noteworthy because this trend, although not new, is receiving a second look by politicians, policymakers and the general public in light of the spate of police shootings of blacks and the subsequent #BlackLivesMatter movement that galvanized the nation last year.
The new racial caste system thrives more on mass incarceration than even early death because inordinate amounts of time spent in prison during the past three decades have robbed the African-American community of the potential civic, economic and familial contributions of at least two generations of black men.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the basic narrative goes something like this: In the aftermath of 1960s-era civil rights victories, African-American men fell victim to global economic shifts that turned major cities into postindustrial wastelands. Jobs, tax bases and opportunities shifted to the suburbs, out West and overseas, leaving behind a desperate, largely unemployable, surplus labor force.
The war on drugs added grave and enduring insult to this pre-existing injury, trapping hundreds of thousands of black men in the bowels of the new American gulag. During the 1980s and 1990s, the black poor was labeled a new racial “underclass,” even as prominent scholars, most notably sociologist William Julius Wilson, insisted that the disappearance of work, more than black behavior, was at the root of the economic misery that contoured African-American inner cities.
So this story is not new, since, as the Times put it, “every census for the last 50 years has shown the phenomenon” of missing black men.
What is new, however, and perhaps offers a sign of hope, is a re-energized discussion over race, class, poverty and criminal justice. The Times editorial offered no policy suggestions other than quoting Wilson’s two-decades-long advocacy for a New Deal-style Works Progress Administration program that would offer every man government-sponsored public employment.
A WPA-styled policy intervention, combined with new legislation aimed at dismantling the system of mass incarceration, would be the kind of bold, ambitious and concrete policy agenda that could untie the Gordian knot of racial injustice in which these missing black men find themselves caught up.
The Times should be applauded for these and other stories that have offered a depth of analysis and reporting on the way in which America’s sprawling system of racial and economic justice does grievous injury and harm to black communities. Pain that, sociologist Michael Eric Dyson reminds us, can be lightning quick or maddeningly slow.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement deserves special praise for its unrelenting and heroic commitment to both protesting the vast spectrum of anti-black racism across the nation and offering concrete policy demands for how we can begin the long road toward genuine racial justice and economic opportunity in America.
There is something profoundly sad about the fact that it takes the combination of prolific and videotaped police shootings of black men and bone-rattling national protests to inspire such coverage in the Times.
Welcome to black America’s reality, a place where African-American men, women and children live daily with the loss of brothers, fathers, husbands, caretakers, friends and mentors. The human cost cannot be adequately measured in numbers alone.
Now, more than ever, we need policy solutions for jobs, decriminalizing black men and women, and injecting resources and hope in neighborhoods and communities, most recently Baltimore and Ferguson, that are exploding in protests and unrest after being burdened for decades by racial segregation, unemployment, police brutality and stigma.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.