Black men are brutally murdered and systematically incarcerated. Is this genocide?
Death gives a shit about your color
But yet I see me dead young brothas
I’m going crazy out here
Seein 24 Brothas die by the end of the year
—Spice 1, “Welcome to the Ghetto”
Being black in a culture that denigrates blackness is tough. —Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
The Black Death
After a day of violence on the streets of Chicago, a mother of four whom had already lost three of her children to gun violence was informed that her remaining son had been shot to death. Meanwhile, four other individuals were killed on the same day as the homicide count in Chicago exceeds 500.
Often missing from news accounts is the fact that many of the deceased are African American males. More frightening, this trend is not unique to Chicago, but mirrors national statistics.
In their review of the literature, researchers Angela Hattery and Earl Smith reported that Black males, especially those between the ages of 18-24, represent the largest homicide victimization group at 91.1 per 100,000. Furthermore, the deaths of young Black males seldom sparks national outrage; at best, societal reaction to such news is met with ambivalence.
America’s infatuation with viewing African American men brutalized
I also feel that part of society’s seeming ambivalence towards the death of Black males is due to the role of Hollywood cinema and media. American culture is replete with cinematic images of Black men being brutalized and ultimately disposed. Consider the 1992 Oscar winning film “Unforgiven,” where Morgan Freeman’s character is beaten to death by the town sheriff played by Gene Hackman.
The movie “Training Day” starred A-list actor Denzel Washington as a crooked cop who was ultimately shot to death in one of the movie’s closing scenes. For his service, Washington was awarded with the most coveted award in Hollywood, an Oscar.
Fellow A-list actor Will Smith is yet to win an Oscar, however he has starred in several major blockbuster movies including “Seven Pounds” and “I Am Legend.” According to one movie review site, “I Am Legend” remains the highest grossing film in which Smith played the leading role. Both movies end with his death, an apparent suicide in the former, while he died protecting another character in the latter.
To be fair, Smith, Freeman and Washington have starred in high-earning movies in which the plot did not involve their eventual demise. Nevertheless, there appears to be trend, both in Hollywood and in mainstream media, of creating images of Black men being killed, tortured or beaten. Furthermore, it is my belief that such images desensitize the viewer to violence against Black men and significantly impacts our reaction to hearing about such violence.
Angela Hattery and Earl Smith reported that African American men make up nearly 45% of the incarcerated population, with roughly one million Black men imprisoned. There are also sentence disparities along racial lines. When charged with an offense, Black males are more likely than White males to be imprisoned and receive longer and more severe sentences for the same crime.
Additionally, the consequences of such high rates of young Black males being imprisoned reverberate throughout the community. Many of these men are imprisoned at a time when they are most likely to contribute significantly to the financial sector and produce families of their own. Even upon release, they remain well behind their peers in lifetime earnings potential.
Furthermore, a racially profiled system seems intent on hurrying young African American males to their institutionalized fate as these individuals are more likely to be randomly searched and have force used against them by authorities.
Hattery and Smith equate penal system institutionalization to present-day genocide, in that both operate to eliminate individuals from society. Being incarcerated restricts and severely limits future opportunities for professional productivity. In a sense, African American men who are incarcerated are at risk for becoming “virtual non-citizens,” with limited ability to significantly affect society’s economic and political institutions.
Meanwhile, Caucasian Americans remain more likely to commit white collar crimes, which harm millions with job, insurance or pension loss. Despite the systematic impact of their crimes, it is my view that their offenses are met with less societal stigma.
Are the facts above sufficient to conclude that Black men are being systematically eradicated? Such a conclusion may be too much of an oversimplification, however, there is no question that widespread intervention remains critical. The problems described above have persisted for quite some time, and frankly, I’ve said very little that’s news. The more relevant question is, what are we going to do about it?
Attention must be paid to systematic oppression. Despite the recent re-election of a bi-racial president, racism remains a staple of American social politics. Such biases appear pervasive within American criminal justice system and more must be written, discussed and intervened upon in order to challenge the racial disparities existing among the prison population.
Criminal Justice Transformation
The legal system seems more intent on criminalization than rehabilitation. And this is true regardless of cultural background. This approach fails to prepare the individual for exiting the legal system therefore he emerges, at times more ill-equipped to demonstrate competence and with fewer of coping skills, as he had upon entering prison.
The so-called war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. Because of the bias existing, people of color suffer more of the casualties of the war on drugs, making it a matter of social justice to end this failed war. I think we need to take a serious look at the criminal justice system and what determines serious crimes and sentencing. The penitentiaries are overflowing with drug users and abusers; it is my belief that these individuals should receive rehabilitation services aimed at skill building and reducing addiction, as opposed to stuffing our jails with non-violent offenders.
Gun violence and the easy accessibility of guns have to be part of this narrative, and yet it’s fiction to think that tighter gun control legislation will create a utopia or significantly reduce the high numbers of Black men imprisoned.
As clichéd as this may sound, more has to be done to assist the educational plight of young African American men as there are strong correlations between academic success in childhood and long term success and adjustment during adulthood. This includes promoting those programs that are already doing their part to reduce the dropout rates among African American males. Organization such as 100 Black Men and the Urban League are two of the most well known organizations committed to assisting the psycho-social efficacy of minority youth.
Yes, white supremacy should be confronted, as should the biases within the criminal and mental health systems. I also believe it is fair to state that a patriarchal society underlies each of these mechanisms as well. Nevertheless, change often comes from the ground up, and it is on that level where we must seek to understand what programs or approaches have and continue to be successful and how can we continue to implement such programs.
The Strength of Black Men
Black men are not disposable. We are collectively and individually growth oriented, resourceful, tenacious and precocious. This is why a history marred by white supremacy has failed to destroy the overall productivity of our community.
The psychologist in me believes that too often we are asking the wrong questions. Sometimes I think that when trying to understand how we can assist the plight of Black males, we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of strictly asking what are the problems which such individuals face en route to adulthood, we should also implement a more strength oriented approach that asks: What are the programs that are already working for Black youth?
Media and Racism
Finally, in reference to the media I should acknowledge that there are several films which promote healthy relationships and exploit the heterogeneity within the Black community. However, those films which perpetuate images of Black men under assault should be confronted and more critical analysis should be written on the impact of such images. Authors like Mark Anthony Neal, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson and Patricia Collins are a few of the researchers who have tackled this complex issue and have much to teach about harmful images of Black males.
There is no question that the negative images of Black males in the media, African American male homicide rate, and rates of Black male imprisonment must be confronted, and examples of Black men achieving academic, personal and professional success presented to counter the pervasive negative image of Black men. When we do so, we must ask: What resources assisted these individuals with productivity, and how can we utilize mechanisms already at work in order to assist the lives of other African American males?
Image credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr