Thursday, June 08, 2006


Paint It Black the numbers. The Washington Post's series tracking the triumphs and travails of African American men has some interesting numbers in a broad poll:

On the whole, survey respondents showed a powerful connection to a common
history that crosses lines of education, income, age and geography, and stands in sharp contrast to the perceptions of many of their white counterparts.

The poll also documents how the enormous changes in society over the last generations have rippled through the lives of black men. But as the distance between the races begins to narrow, new tensions have emerged in the way black men perceive themselves and their lives:

· Six in 10 black men said their collective problems owe more to what they have failed to do themselves rather than "what white people have done to blacks." At the same time, half reported they have been treated unfairly by the police, and a clear majority said the economic system is stacked against them.
· More than half said they place a high value on marriage -- compared with 39 percent of black women -- and six in 10 said they strongly value having children. Yet at least 38 percent of all black fathers in the survey are not living with at least one of their young children, and a third of all never-married black men have a child. Six in 10 said that black men disrespect black women.
· Three in four said they value being successful in a career, more than either white men or black women. Yet majorities also said that black men put too little emphasis on education and too much emphasis on sports and sex.
· Eight in 10 said they are satisfied with their lives, and six in 10 reported that it is a "good time" to be a black man in the United States. But six in 10 also reported they often are the targets of racial slights or insults, two-thirds said they believe the courts are more likely to convict black men than whites, and a quarter reported they have been physically threatened or attacked because they are black.
· Black men said they strongly believe in the American Dream -- nine in 10 black men would tell their sons they can become anything they want to in life. But this vision of the future is laden with cautions and caveats: Two-thirds also would warn their sons that they will have to be better and work harder than whites for equal rewards.

The question, of course, is what is to be done with this information? It's not exactly like this is uncharted history. However, there is one area where the poll produces results that could, in the right context be fruitful:

Despite their clear achievements and general optimism about their prospects, black men worry more than virtually everyone, the survey found. About four in 10 black men said they are fearful they will lose their job, nearly double the proportion of white men who said the same thing. Even more affluent, better-educated black men are far more anxious about being fired or laid off than their white male and white female co-workers.

More than half of all black men said they fear they or a member of their family will get AIDS, nearly triple the percentage of white men. Six in 10 said they worry that they'll be treated unfairly by the police, and more than a third said they fear they will be arrested -- fears that hardly trouble whites. A good job and education do little to ease these fears: college-educated, upper-middle-class black men were about twice as likely to say they are worried about being arrested, losing their jobs or falling victim to violent crime as upper-class whites.

"With a black man, first you're black. And that carries a lot of baggage -- false and real," said Jerome Tucker, 52, an entrepreneur in Upper Marlboro.

This worries gap sometimes exists in areas where the survey results suggest it shouldn't. When asked if they had been laid off or fired, an equal proportion of higher-income, college-educated whites and blacks reported that they had.

In short, black men worry more. Of course, there is the old saying -- "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they're not out to get you." -- that has some validity here. The many concerns that those men articulate are reinforced by a society that gives statistics on how many more black men are unemployed or in jail or have greater likelihood of getting AIDS, having high blood pressure or heart disease.

So, what comes first -- the chicken or the egg? There is a real sense that comes through here that the Biblical adage of being a "brother's keeper" is taken to heart by the African American male -- possibly to an extent that may be unhealthy.

Wanting to help your fellow man is an admirable and praiseworthy impulse. However, empathizing to the point where the miseries of one's brother becomes the imagined or exaggerated ills of oneself can ultimately be emotionally paralyzing -- for both the individual and the collective.

UPDATE: Edited to correct for confusing grammatical construction in the last paragraph.

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