Politics & Policy

Look Beyond Ferguson and Baltimore: The Good News about Black Men

(Katrina Brown/Dreamstime)

If you look beyond recent headlines about race in America, here is a surprising truth: Most black men in America are doing just fine. Most black men are not poor, most black men will not be incarcerated, most black men are gainfully employed, and most black men will marry.

“Why haven’t I heard this before?” asked Stephan Moore, a 49-year-old African-American father from Oklahoma City, after hearing one of us lecture this month. “I’m so glad I brought my teenage son. He hasn’t heard this message about black men.”

Moore’s surprise is understandable. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and Baltimore, the national conversation about black men has tended to focus on the bad news about black men. In launching My Brother’s Keeper, his initiative to help black and Latino men in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, President Obama outlined the challenges confronting minority men: They face a “higher chance [of ending] up in the criminal-justice system, and a far higher chance [of becoming] the victim of a violent crime. Fewer young black and Latino men participate in the labor force compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults.”

The president is not wrong, as minority men are doing relatively worse than white men. But framing the issue this way can blind us to another reality: Most black men in America are doing just fine, as we noted recently in The Atlantic. As Stephan Moore shows us, the good news has fallen by the wayside in the recent conversation about black men.

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The statistics tell us that most black men are working — 55 percent of black men aged 18–60 are employed (and 15 percent are in school), according to the 2014 American Community Survey. This figure is much lower than anyone might like, but it nevertheless reflects the majority of black men. The vast majority of African-American men will not be incarcerated; in 2001, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 17 percent of black men had spent time in jail or prison, and incarceration rates have fallen since then. A clear majority of black men are not poor — government statistics indicate that 78 percent of black men aged 18–60 have incomes that place them above the poverty line. And most black men will tie the knot: About 76 percent of black men in their forties have married, according to the 2014 Current Population Survey.

One reason that so many black men are flourishing is their active engagement in a religious community.

One reason that so many black men are flourishing is their active engagement in a religious community, as we show in our new book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. In fact, black men attend church at above-average rates: Thirty-seven percent of black men aged 18–60 attend frequently (several times a month or more), compared to 30 percent for non-black men. Compared to their less-religious peers, these men are significantly more likely to be doing well on outcomes ranging from crime to incarceration, and from work to marriage.

Michael Armstrong (a pseudonym), a New Yorker who grew up poor in Brooklyn, is one such black man. On September 11, 2001, his job as an office manager in the World Trade Center was obliterated by al-Qaeda. Thereafter he struggled to find work. Michael ended up finding employment at a taxi company, first as a driver and then as a dispatcher. The work was difficult, in part because he labored long hours to earn about half of what he had made at his previous job. When we spoke to him in 2006, Michael was frustrated because his income had fallen well below what his wife Latisha made. His job situation led some of Latisha’s friends to disparage him. “[They were] like oh, you know, [he’s] becoming like a ‘no good black man,’” she said.

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Some men in his shoes might have given up, but Michael did not. What kept him going? His faith, in part. “I did the job [at the taxi company] as unto the Lord, and so I took that to mean I’m doing the job as if Jesus Christ himself was signing my paycheck,” recalls Michael. “I worked really hard and because of that I was elevated to dispatcher in three years. If I didn’t work as hard, I don’t know where I would be. You know, I probably would have been fired, ’cause they had no problems firing [laughs] people.” Michael also took comfort from the “Brother to Brother” men’s group at his church, Faith Deliverance Church, in Brooklyn: “[I] have all these people around and they help us out and they do keep us in line. . . .  So, we know we can call some people if we’re really going through [difficulties], you know. It’s just comforting to know that God’s provided that kind of thing for us.”

What is evident from Michael’s life is that his faith, in conjunction with the support he has received from his peers at church, has buffered him from some of the interpersonal and economic challenges facing all too many black men in America. And his experience is not unusual.

#share#Our book indicates that churchgoing black men are significantly more likely to steer clear of what sociologist Elijah Anderson has called the “code of the street” — an ethos marked by violent self-assertion, criminal or off-the-books activity, and a live-for-the-moment mentality. Tragically, the code of the street has shaped the lives of an alarming minority of men, especially young black men. It has proven more salient in their lives because young black men are more likely to hail from neighborhoods scarred by racism, poverty, violence, and too many homes without fathers. The culture of the “street,” in other words, has emerged partly from a legacy of disadvantage, a point recently made by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his reflections on growing up in West Baltimore. The experience of these men has tended to dominate the conversation regarding black men in America more generally.

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But a different code shapes the lives of many other African Americans. Steering clear of the code of the street, many African Americans embrace what Anderson calls a “code of decency” — a code marked by hard work, honesty, temperance, consideration of others, and other mainstream values. In Anderson’s words, decent black people “value hard work and self-reliance,” “have a certain amount of faith in mainstream society,” and often “derive great support from their faith and from the church community.” The black men living according to this code have garnered less attention in recent years. But millions of black men across America are adhere to the decency code, and faith seems to be one reason why.

Not only does religious faith often help African-American men steer clear of crime, it also reinforces their connections to work and marriage.

Take crime. As we recently reported in The Atlantic, young black men who are regular churchgoers were 17 percent less likely to report criminal activity than their peers who are not regular attendees, even after controlling for their education level, family structure growing up, and other demographic factors. Likewise, young black men who attend church in their early twenties are about 30 percent less likely to end up in jail than their peers who do not attend church. Our findings parallel the work of sociologist Byron Johnson, who has found that religious attendance is most protective for black youth coming from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Not only does religious faith often help African-American men steer clear of crime, it also reinforces their connections to work and marriage. This was evident in Michael Armstrong’s experience. Young black men who regularly attend church are about 30 percent less likely to be idle (out of work and out of school) compared to their peers who don’t attend frequently, even after controlling for a range of background factors. Our findings are consistent with research by economist Richard Freeman indicating that urban black youth who regularly attend church have higher “chances to ‘escape’ from inner-city poverty. Churchgoing affects allocation of time, school attendance, work activity, and the frequency of socially deviant activity,” all in ways that increase the odds that disadvantaged black youth will steer clear of poverty as adults. Not surprisingly, churchgoing also boosts the odds that black men find their way to the altar: African-American men who attend church regularly are almost one-third more likely to get married than their peers who rarely or never attend church.

The bottom line, as Soul Mates makes abundantly clear, is that most black men are doing just fine in 21st-century America, a point often lost in today’s public conversation. Their lives are often strengthened by the social, moral, and spiritual succor they receive from the black church. That’s an important piece of good news about black men as we close out black history month this February.

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