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Where have all the good black men gone?

By JONATHAN TILOVE
The Star Ledger

Darryl Jeffries, the spokesman for East Orange, calls his city “the most densely populated community of color in the United States.” The Essex County city covers less than four square miles, but it is home to more than 70,000 people.  Mostly black. Some Hispanics. A few whites.

But the most salient statistic about East Orange is the number of black men who are not there. Under the age of 18, there are more black boys than girls. Among the adult population, however, there are 37 percent more women than men.

Where are these missing men? Most are dead. Many others are locked up. Some are in the military.

Worse yet, the gender imbalance in East Orange is not some grotesque anomaly. It’s a vivid snapshot of a very troubling reality in black America.

There are nearly two million more black adult women than men in America, stark testimony to how often black men die before their time. With nearly another million black men in prison or the military, the real imbalance is even greater—a gap of 2.8 million, according to U.S. Census data for 2002. On average, then, there are 26 percent more black women than black men; among whites, women outnumber men by just 8 percent.

Perhaps no single statistic so precisely measures the fateful, often fatal, price of being a black man in America, or so powerfully conveys how beset black communities are by the violence and disease that leaves them bereft of brothers, fathers, husbands and sons, and leaves whole communities reeling.

“It just distorts the fabric of African-American life,” says Roland Anglin, executive director of the New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute, whose mission is research to improve the quality of life in communities of color. “It’s scandalous for us as a society.”

In the March/April issue of Health Affairs, Dr. David Satcher, surgeon general under former President Bill Clinton and now the interim president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, exposes the core of the problem: Between 1960 and 2000, the disparity between mortality rates for black and white women narrowed while the disparity between the rates for black and white men grew wider.

Exponentially higher homicide and AIDS rates play their part, especially among younger black men. Even more deadly through middle age and beyond are higher rates of cardiovascular
disease and cancer.

“The degree of loss and death that people in those communities are experiencing at a young age is just unfathomable,” says Arline T. Geronimus of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. A few years ago Geronimus led a team of researchers who calculated that in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, two- thirds of black boys and one-third of black girls who reach their 15th birthday would not make 65.

“We live in a society right now where if you turn 25, you’re an old head,” says Stanley Edwards, 45, a program developer with the recreation department in East Orange, where all the signs of the dilemma are etched in sharp relief and where three years ago Edwards drew together a small group of young people to start Teens Against Violence Everywhere. “When I
was growing up, 25, you just started.”

Chilling stuff. But, says Satcher, “The real question is, does the nation really care to solve this problem?”

STARTLING STATISTICS

The imbalance between the numbers of black men and women does not exist everywhere. There is no gap to speak of in places with relatively small black populations like Minneapolis,
Minn.; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco and San Diego. And Seattle actually has more black men than women.

But it is the rule in communities with large concentrated black populations. There are, for instance, more than 30 percent more black women than men in Baltimore, New Orleans,
Chicago and Cleveland, and in smaller cities like Harrisburg, Pa. There are 36 percent more black women than men in New York City, and 37 percent more in Saginaw, Mich., and
Philadelphia. In Newark, the figure is 26 percent.

In East Orange, there were more black males under 18 than females in 2000. And yet, there were 29 percent more black women than men in their 20s.

How can that be? Ask Eric Perryman, 23, a first-year teacher at Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange.

“The street where I grew up in East Orange, there were about 12 of us. Five of them are dead now,” says Perryman, who coordinates TAVE with Edwards and Christina White, a native of Portland, Ore., who works at East Orange General Hospital while pursuing her master’s in public health. Of the five, Perryman says one was a suicide and the other four homicides.
“One got shot by a police officer. Another died in the hallway where he lived, another was shot in front of his grandmother’s house over a coat, another died on Central Avenue.”

Perryman says that of the surviving members of his crew of 12, “most are in jail.”

According to The Sentencing Project in Washington, on any given day in America, one in eight black males ages 25 to 29 is incarcerated, and nearly a third of all black men in their 20s are behind bars, on probation or on parole.

“It’s worse than the Wild West,” says Rochelle D. Evans, a former police commissioner in East Orange and now the city’s interim director for Health and Human Services.

But getting through their teens and 20s is only the first gantlet black males must run. Evans knows.

She was five when her father, who was 42, was killed on the job at the former Tappan Range factory in Newark; a machine fell on him, fracturing his skull. Of her four brothers, two died of heart attacks in their 40s, the third suffers from diabetes and kidney failure and lost a leg, and the fourth has gastrointestinal problems. Her husband, a retired police officer, was 15 when his father died of a heart attack, and of his seven brothers, one was shot to death in a dispute over a woman and three died of heart attacks, all before they turned 50.

By the time people reach their 60s in East Orange, there are 47 percent more black women than men, and with every succeeding year, the winnowing continues. Isabelle Fowler,
head of the tenant organization at her senior citizen housing complex, estimates that the 110 apartments there are home to “maybe 10 men. And it’s not going to get any better for us.”

WHAT LIES BENEATH

Geronimus, the University of Michigan researcher, developed an analytical framework she calls “weathering” to describe the lifetime of stresses black people face at every turn.  This process wears them down and wears them out, compromising their health and contributing to early death.

“It can just beat you down,” says Haki Madhubuti, the Chicago poet, publisher, educator and author of books such as “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?” and “Tough Notes: A
Healing Call for Creating Exceptional Black Men.” He says that’s why he became a vegan and tries to bike 20 to 25 miles a day.

Madhubuti says the stress of being black takes a special toll on the minds of the men. “Men run the world, and now understand that you are not one of the men running the world, and layer on that that men you don’t like are always telling you what to do,” says Madhubuti. “Many brothers just drop out.”

These days East Orange—like other communities across the nation—is gamely trying to regain its balance, contending with issues of infant mortality, lead poisoning, gun violence and AIDS.

If those challenges aren’t steep enough, local leaders also face a perception problem: Many people view the crisis among black men as a consequence of social forces so large and intractable as to be beyond reach or repair.

Still, there are glimmers of hope. The gender gap is in part a reflection of the improved lot of black women, as a consequence of a long-term national commitment to maternal and women’s health and a Medicaid program that provided access to care for poor women and children—access still denied to many poor men. And despite today’s bleak realities, mortality rates for black men were actually worse in 1990, at the height of the crack-and-homicide epidemic in America’s cities.

The enormous growth of the prison population, meanwhile, is largely the result of recent mandatory sentencing laws—laws that could be reformed or reversed. And communities like East Orange seem astir with mentorship programs and a new conviction that self-destructive behavior will not be tolerated.

What’s missing, many observers believe, is a national will to confront the problem in all its difficult dimensions.

“If white men were falling off the grid as rapidly as black men, it would be considered a national crisis,” says Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore and author of “The Warrior Method: A Program for Rearing Black Boys.”

“It would be leading all the network news shows,” says Jeffries, the spokesman for East Orange and formerly a writer and producer with NBC News in New York. “It would be full-court, around-the- clock coverage on ‘the gap’ and all its ramifications.”

[Jonathan Tilove writes about race for the Newhouse News Service. Jonathan Tilove can be contacted at .]

(c) 2005? The Star Ledger (c) 2005


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