In our pressing public discussion about what troubles the souls of black folk, there are times when the conversation can seem phlegmatically black-man-centric. Instead of saying “unarmed black people shot by police,” we accept “unarmed black men” as the default. Yet we know that black women are being gunned down or brutalized at alarming rates, too. One ugly weekend case of a white cop’s knee to a bathing-suited black girl’s back drives that point home.
Reflections on criminal justice and our mega-prison-industrial complex immediately put a hot lamp on how they’re overloaded by black men—when we’ve known for years that black women are filling up jails (pdf), too. Last year, when President Barack Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper—the kickoff to what will be a major post-presidency focus—there was a fistful of backlash calling for a “My Sister’s” brand somewhere in the ballyhooed White House plan.
In an age of greater gender awareness, after centuries of one-dimensional chauvinist thought, this is all positive. It’s an essential community check-in that helps refresh the collective cultural soul. Black women should hold the conversation accountable—especially when shouldering as much burden as they have done and continue to do.
But just as it’s difficult to apply white-feminist context to black-feminist reality, it’s equally toilsome to attempt to snap a Mars-vs.-Venus Lego into the very complex and brutal confab on the black male-female dynamic.
As we approach another Father’s Day and think about the men in our lives, let’s consider that it’s not unfair to suggest that black men deserve greater focus. And not just because they are men. Because what they are going through is putting an entire community into some really existential trouble that we can’t risk ignoring in order to have a gender debate. It’s as if we see that an asteroid will hit Earth, but we’re still busy squabbling over what to name it.
For example: Yes, black women have tragically been and continue to be victimized or killed by law enforcement. Some suggest that we have ignored black female suffering at the hands of police because we are stunted by gender bias. That’s not entirely untrue.
But that shouldn’t prompt a gender tit-for-tat that dismisses the sheer weight of the numbers. The Guardian’s ongoing project analyzing death-by-cop data revealed that 95 percent of black deaths by police were male, compared with 5 percent female, in 2014. Based on the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data we have (since the police-shooting data are already scarce), from 2003 to 2009, there were 4,813 arrest-related deaths (reported), out of which 218 were women. Of the total, 1,529 were black deaths; as a result, the rate of black male deaths is statistically higher than that of black women. In Gawker’s online mural-like study of unarmed African Americans killed by police between 1994 and 2014, 80 percent were black men.
Economically, it’s still worse. Bad enough, as The Economist recently noted in a must-read cover story, that blue-collar “low-skilled” men—including, yes, white men—worldwide in rich or in what are called OECD countries are now faced with a permanently and nearly irreversibly “poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.”
In general, we’re seeing blue-collar men lagging behind women (even if we’re still seeing men dominate everything from business and politics to finance and technology). But blue-collar men in the rich world today are being economically marginalized at astounding rates, with families taking a hit as the number of out-of-wedlock births in those countries has reached 33 percent.
So we can easily imagine how that translates for men of color as their populations grow. According to a recent New York Times Upshot analysis, for every 100 black women ages 25-54, there are only 83 potential black male partners—and that also translates into 50 black men with jobs for every 100 black women. Or, more staggering, as Upshot notes: “More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.”
All of the above and more continues or exacerbates vicious social, economic and emotional cycles that have a severe impact on everyone around or in close proximity to black men, including black women and black children.
When Gallup conducted its Well-Being Index, it found that “[y]oung black males [under 35] as a group have higher unemployment, lower graduation rates, less access to healthcare and higher incarceration rates than other racial, age and gender groups in the U.S.” Black males, in fact, have the lowest index score, 59.7, in comparison with white men at 60.7, Hispanic men at 62.3 and Asian men at 63.7.
Unemployment, as Gallup later pointed out, is a leading driver. The Well-Being Index score plummets for unemployed black men, 51.4, compared with unemployed nonblack men at 54.3. Those official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers we see dropping every month? That’s a bit of an official sham because we’re not seeing any real improvement in black male employment prospects. For black men, unemployment is still officially high, with 11 percent of black men over age 20 unemployed, versus 9.6 percent of black women and 4.4 percent of white men. So joblessness might be dipping for select demographics, but not for black men.
Since, as black people, we still largely cluster together in terms of our cultural, living and relationship choices, black men and women are interconnected in ways that others are not. What’s been happening to black men rips the very fabric of that connection. And that leaves wide open questions on how long this catastrophic social and economic climate that our fathers, brothers and sons face will affect us all … black women included.
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.