By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman has brought to the surface the precariousness of black maleness in America. The black male has been stereotyped as inexorably criminal, violent, and incompetent. As a result, he inspires both terror and derision.
President Obama captured this with uncharacteristic candor when he said, "There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me….
"There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me - at least before I was a senator….
"There are very few African-American [men] who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often."
Eric Holder, America’s chief law enforcement officer, who is black, also narrated his experience of being stopped by a police officer “while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.”
Like most black dads in America, he said regularly sits with his 15-year-old son and teaches him how to stay out of trouble with the police because blackness and maleness are often assumed to be guilty of criminality until proven innocent.
Although African Americans as a whole constitute only about 13 percent of America’s population, black males make up more than 40 percent of the country’s prison population. In fact, many studies say that there are more black males in America’s prisons than there are black males in America’s colleges and universities. (Recent findings have shown that this isn't exactly accurate, but the fact that such a comparison is even within the realm of possibility says a lot.)
It’s not a pleasant fate to be born black and male in America. Not being a native-born American black male, I am sometimes insulated from the negative stereotypes associated with American black males, but it’s difficult to escape the stereotypes all the time. For instance, in 2005 in Louisiana, I was stopped by menacing, gun-toting police officers—in three police cars!—because I was merely suspected to be up to no good. I was told to drop my weapons even though I was barehanded. It was my Nigerian accent that saved me.
Last year in Mississippi, on an elevator at a hotel, an old white lady asked me and another Nigerian if we worked as cleaners in the hotel. She was probably frightened that she was alone on the elevator with two black males whom she thought couldn’t afford to be guests at such a pricey hotel. She wanted to be sure that we worked there. If we weren’t workers, we were probably criminals who would rob her.
I have had many more mild versions of the odious discrimination that African-American males encounter all their life. I frankly don’t know if I would have been what I am now if I had been born here. The odds against the black male are steep. It takes an uncommon determination and self-confidence to surmount them.
More than 80 percent of all local news here is always about crimes committed by “black males.” Newscasters never fail to emphasize the race and gender of criminals, which has the effect of reinforcing stereotypes and of inadvertently compelling young black men to not only internalize the stereotypes but to live up to them. Psychologists call the tendency for people to behave according the dominant stereotypes that society holds of them “the stereotype threat.”
But an even worse danger to the black male than media stereotyping is the perniciousness of contemporary black youth culture. It glamorizes violence, crime, thuggery, pimping, drug use, etc. Young black males who are fed on the staples of this self-destructive culture from an impressionable age think it’s “cool” to commit a crime, do drugs, etc. and go to jail. It’s a source of “street cred.” You can’t succeed in your music career, for instance, if you’ve never been to jail.
Similarly, in black America, petty squabbles over inanities are “settled” with guns. An African-American woman told me a story last week of black-on-black gun violence that exemplifies this. She said she overheard a black male teenager boast to his girlfriend that he would kill his friend over some frivolous disagreement that they had had. The girlfriend pleaded with him not to make good his threat but he was unmoved. My friend called the police and reported what she heard. The police didn’t do anything. The following day, it was on the local news that a young black male had shot his friend dead. This is a frequent occurrence in the black community here. More black males kill each other than police or white racists kill them.
All this conspire to construct an image of the black male as an invariably violent criminal.
It’s getting so bad that many black parents now openly say they don’t want to have male children. A black American female TV host by the name of Melissa Harris-Perry recently shocked her viewers when she said "I will never forget... the relief I felt at my 20 week ultrasound when they told me it was a girl…. I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, wish that they don't exist, because it's not safe."
Are we about to enter an era in America when black women abort their babies when they discover they are boys? That would give a whole new meaning to black male endangerment in America.