Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male

Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male

Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male

Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male


Selected by "Choice" magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title Typically residing in areas of concentrated urban poverty, too many young black men are trapped in a horrific cycle that includes active discrimination, unemployment, violence, crime, prison, and early death. This toxic mixture has given rise to wider stereotypes that limit the social capital of all young black males. Edited and with an introductory chapter by sociologist Elijah Anderson, the essays in "Against the Wall" describe how the young black man has come to be identified publicly with crime and violence. In reaction to his sense of rejection, he may place an exaggerated emphasis on the integrity of his self-expression in clothing and demeanor by adopting the fashions of the "street." To those deeply invested in and associated with the dominant culture, his attitude is perceived as profoundly oppositional. His presence in public gathering places becomes disturbing to others, and the stereotype of the dangerous young black male is perpetuated and strengthened. To understand the origin of the problem and the prospects of the black inner-city male, it is essential to distinguish his experience from that of his pre-Civil Rights Movement forebears. In the 1950s, as militant black people increasingly emerged to challenge the system, the figure of the black male became more ambiguous and fearsome. And while this activism did have the positive effect of creating opportunities for the black middle class who fled from the ghettos, those who remained faced an increasingly desperate climate. Featuring a foreword by Cornel West and sixteen original essays by contributors including William Julius Wilson, Gerald D. Jaynes, Douglas S. Massey, and Peter Edelman, "Against the Wall" illustrates how social distance increases as alienation and marginalization within the black male underclass persist, thereby deepening the country's racial divide.


Cornel West

In 1932 Sterling Brown, one of the great black men of the twentieth century, published a monumental work of poetry, Southern Road. in Part I, called “Road So Rocky”—a phrase that still describes what young brothers encounter in so many chocolate cities—is a poem called “Strong Men.” in this catastrophic moment for so many black brothers growing up in impoverished communities, we must recall and invoke the tradition of strong men, men of courage, wisdom, and dignity, as did Sterling Brown in his time.

I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and when I think of black men I think of my grandfather, Rev. Clifton West, Sr., and my late father, Clifton West, Jr. I always associated black men with tremendous style, elegance, resiliency, and agency. I associated black men with being able to overcome, to look darkness in the face unflinchingly and still smile like Louis Armstrong, or “keep on pushing” like Curtis Mayfield. That’s my conception of black men, but that is not a hegemonic or predominant perception these days. Why so?

The current view of black men has something to do with the fact that we have been living for forty years in an ice age where it is fashionable to be indifferent to poor people suffering, the most vulnerable citizens suffering. Young black men are a significant slice of the most vulnerable, so they are rendered invisible. in the great metaphor of Ralph Ellison, they become so invisible that the dilapidated housing, the disgraceful school systems, the lack of access to jobs that pay a living wage, the underemployment and unemployment that afflict young men in the inner city— all these have now become part of the norm. When we hear stories documenting racial discrimination in hiring today, we almost have to laugh to keep from crying as we see how that legacy of white supremacy still operates. We say to ourselves, my God, is the culture still that sick, is society still that pathological, is the U.S. still that indifferent to the . . .

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