Academic journal article Social Work

The Endangerment of African American Men: An Appeal for Social Work Action

Academic journal article Social Work

The Endangerment of African American Men: An Appeal for Social Work Action

Article excerpt

We live in a nation strained by racism, hostility, and hatred. Our communities and neighborhoods are overcome by violence, fear, and apathy. Our homes, which were once considered safe havens, have now become the sites of increasing acting out of frustration and anger. Due to inequities, oppressive conditions, and uncontrollable stresses, individuals are turning against themselves, their loved ones, and others to vent their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Many African American men are especially caught up in this cycle of violent behaviors and victimization and consequently are becoming an endangered species (Gibbs, 1984, 1988; Staples, 1987). The adverse consequences of this cycle - including major injury and death - will affect the future of African American men, their families, and generations to come. Society's level of concern says much about us as a nation.

Many studies have reported on the extent of violence in the African American community, citing alarming statistics and predictions. Relatively high victimization rates of violent crimes have been reported for individuals who are African American, male, poor, young, or single. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1985), African American men have an unusually high likelihood of being murdered; African Americans are more than five times as likely to be the victims of homicide as white people (Hawkins, 1986). Homicide is the leading cause of death of African American men between ages 15 and 34, and since 1960, the suicide rate for African American men between ages 15 and 24 has tripled (Gibbs, 1988). In 1992, of the 23,760 homicide victims reported, 50 percent were African American and 48 percent were white, a disproportionate amount considering that African Americans are only 11 percent of the population.

Eighty-four percent of violent crimes perpetrated against African Americans were by African Americans (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1990). Ninety percent of those arrested for homicide were men; 55 percent (10,728) were African American, and 43 percent (8,466) were white (U.S. Department of Justice, 1993). In 1990, African Americans were 35.7 percent of the prison population, compared with 50 percent for white people (Criminal Justice Institute, 1991). These figures are startling but do not examine the structural forces that engender crime: inadequate education and job training, unemployment and underemployment, and the inequitable distribution of wealth and power (Seidman & Rappaport, 1986).

Because the justice system places a higher value on white men than on African American men, the latter have had disproportionately higher incarceration and death penalty rates (Poussaint, 1983). Investigations of crimes against African Americans are given low priority. Crimes against white people are more stringently punished. Excessive force, police brutality, harassment, and false arrests against African Americans are widespread (Feagin, 1986). As Radelet and Vandiver (1986) pointed out, "Equality for blacks has not yet been achieved in American society, least of all in the criminal justice system. The idea that all of us are born with an equal chance of eventually dying in the electric chair remains a myth" (p. 189).

Despite the risks of school failure, family estrangement, homicidal violence, and stress-related illnesses that beset African American men from the vulnerable underclass, there is a growing number of middle-class African Americans who excel in family, community, and national leadership roles (Bowman, 1989). Since 1970, the number of African Americans earning over $35,000 a year has risen by almost one-third. Yet there was also a general decline in middle-class incomes between 1970 and 1984, resulting in an increase in lower-income families (Malveaux, 1988). Thus, the gap between economically disadvantaged and middle-class African Americans is growing. A vast majority of African Americans are excluded from the economic and political participation that would improve their standard of living. …

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