Volume 17

A Further Investigation of the Absence of Black Men

By MacKenzie Isaac


Image Credit: Alaskainpics

The case of the "missing black man" is a familiar one for America. One Father's Day a few years ago, televisions buzzed and radios blared throughout the nation as everyone listened to presidential candidate Barack Obama lament the failure of black men to remain present in their families. This lamentation seemed to be expressed over and over again – like a broken record – and nothing seemed to be shifting in the modern-day black household. Black men have been called and implored to reappear and support their families for decades, yet I continue to walk into the houses of friends and neighbors, only to find family photos and postcards devoid of a male face, and I thank God once more for giving me my dad, for making me one of the "lucky ones."

Without the active participation of black men in households, the very foundation of the black family can begin to crumble. Why is this allowed to happen, and why, after years upon years of inquiring about this subject, has the madness not yet stopped? In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that the case of the "missing black man" will not be resolved until we begin to acknowledge the reason why black men have gone missing in the first place. This reason, according to Alexander, is mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, which surpass other, more racially-neutral reasons that are presently presented to the public through media, such as the increasing number of black men who are gay or who are simply negligent. Throughout her article, Michelle Alexander unabashedly addresses how the War on Drugs directly correlates to mass incarceration and how, by denying the racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system, America is encouraging the norm of social and racial injustice. The denial of racial discrepancies, or "colorblindness," as put by Alexander, is a vicious mechanism for "trap[ping] African-Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage" (179).

I can deeply relate to Alexander's frame of mind in writing this argument; she, as a black woman, presents several personal and communal stakes as she talks about the absence of black men in families. I, as a black woman, am confronted with many of the same stakes. Such stakes include the fear of not having ample male role models within our immediate and extended families and the fear of remaining socially-inferior in a world in which "…racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control…" (Alexander 178). This commonality in social circumstance notwithstanding, I find much of Alexander's argument to be founded on bias, and she overlooks other significant factors for the disappearance of black men, aside from mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. This leads her to use hasty generalizations and insufficient logic when detailing the narrative of the black man in America. Beyond her employment of these fallacies, Alexander neglects to account for the personal accountability that incarcerated black men ought to take for their own unfortunate circumstances, and I would argue that this discrepancy is what detracts from the legitimacy of Alexander's argument the most.

While it has been proven over and again that minorities – particularly African-Americans and Hispanics – are more likely to be imprisoned than other races, there are other factors that contribute to the disproportionately high statistics of incarceration of black and brown people aside from racial discrimination – which is the only reasoning that Alexander proposes. Because Alexander views the mass incarceration of blacks in America primarily from the vantage point of racism, I would assert that the argument as a whole is limited in scope. For instance, Alexander does not account for the number of black men who depart from their households by choice, criminal history aside. Alexander claims that "[Black men] did not walk out on their families voluntarily; they were taken away in handcuffs, often due to a massive federal program known as the War on Drugs" (175). This assertion is quite a hasty generalization, as data and surveys collected across the country have shown that there are several other important explanations for the absence of black men.

A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin concluded that a black child born today has a 1 in 5 chance of growing up in a two parent household (Peterson). Surely, mass incarceration is not the sole reason for such a staggering statistic, and James Comer, a psychologist at Yale University and co-author of Raising Black Children, claims that there are several other contributing factors for statistics such as these. According to Comer, too many black men "would like to be responsible fathers, but they are under-prepared for parenthood." In an interview, Alvin F. Poussaint, psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and Comer's co-author, claims that black men are opting out of raising their families for other societal reasons, from the growing social acceptance of single motherhood to growing resentment toward black women, who are now considered to be "equal competitors in the marketplace" (Peterson). In other words, if black men feel as if they are not needed, then they are more likely to leave. Poussaint furthermore explains that societal and economic pressures can cause black men – especially young fathers – to feel so heavily overwhelmed that they withdraw from family life as a coping mechanism. The absenteeism of black men is thus more multifaceted than the ongoing racism Alexander suggests. As proven by the findings of seasoned experts, other aspects of the system dissuade black men from handling their responsibilities, such as a lack of maturity and experience, financial hardship, and pure indifference. By not accounting for this logic, Alexander makes a tenuous claim that can easily be refuted by counterexamples.

In a further attempt to persuade her audience of the "black man's plight," Alexander decries how black and brown ex-convicts who attempt to re-enter society are deprived of a sense of normalcy, stripped of fundamental rights, and discarded into an inferior caste. I would argue, however, that some rights are rescinded from formerly incarcerated people for legitimate reasons, such as the need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community. I also do not fully agree with Alexander's generalization of prisoner re-entry programs as "well intentioned," but failing to "convey the gravity of the situation facing prisoners upon their release" (181). Programs of this nature are often government-sanctioned, which limits the amount of funding and resources available to help the formerly incarcerated become physically, mentally, and socially reacclimated to life beyond prison walls. Furthermore, the success rates of these programs reflect the amount of effort the participants invest into the program just as much as it reflects the actual quality of the program. Alexander's subtle accusations against the criminal justice system do not take into account an array of factors that, from a logical standpoint, could also result in the failure of the formerly incarcerated to achieve stability outside of prison. For instance, while I am a firm proponent of voting rights and career development opportunities for all adults – no matter their past or present circumstances – I believe that employers and tenants are justified in denying certain privileges like these to convicted felons as a rational means of upholding their reputations and protecting their communities, even at the expense of the ex-convicts who are seeking employment.

One particular case validates my opinion on the matter. In 2001, 19-year-old Virginia Tech student Kristin Blair was ambushed and assaulted while exiting the restroom. Her attacker was James Lee Harris, one of the school's janitors. What if, during the investigation of the case, Harris was discovered to have a criminal history? Even the smallest infringement on Harris' record could mean a costly lawsuit for Virginia Tech. Incidentally, Harris had been found guilty in Domestic Relations Court of physically assaulting another woman eleven months prior (Creed). The courts had considered holding Virginia Tech liable for not fully investigating the potential harms that employees could cause for the third party in question: the students, the potential victims. Incidents such as these can be avoided through criminal background checks, which do not have to be used for discriminatory purposes, but to ensure that employers know the risks associated with each of their employees. Employers must therefore make an effort to strike a balance between taking precautionary measures when hiring and giving potential employees a fair shot at financial stability.

Perhaps most crucially, Alexander neglects to mention that African-American men are responsible for disproportionate rates of crimes aside from drug-dealing and drug usage. Prisons are not filled only with drug dealers, after all. Drug abuse is only a patch in a large and intricate quilt of crime that blankets our society. In the words of Mark Kleiman, journalist for the Washington Monthly, "Both crime and incarceration are appallingly concentrated among poor African Americans; in the same neighborhoods where homicide is the leading cause of death for young men, more than half of those men will do prison time before they turn thirty." Yes, social and economic conditions are by-and-large responsible for these behaviors, but Alexander falsely implies that racial discrimination is the go-to answer for every case of a black convicted felon. By depicting the incarceration of black men as a scene painted primarily by injustice, not only does Alexander omit the vital fact that black men are highly culpable for many other crimes, but she furthermore indirectly displaces the blame for the incarceration of black men onto white society. When a man chooses to abuse drugs, is he not choosing to detach himself from his family – to potentially leave his household fragmented? Alexander scorns the "prevailing public consensus that we need not care about 'those people'; they deserve what they get" (178), but one must consider how often convicted felons really do deserve their sentences. Alexander does not acknowledge a fine line between discrimination being perpetuated and justice being served.

While Alexander makes an insightful, logically-sound statement overall, by orienting her entire argument around racial injustice, she denies other crucial elements that – when considered as a whole – tell the true story behind the absenteeism of black men in families. There is little doubt that the prejudices woven into the criminal justice system and the War on Drugs play a significant role in the shortage of black fathers, but we must not forget that there exist black men across America who are not locked behind cages, but separated from their loved ones for an array of other reasons. All in all, I agree that the War on Drugs is the "New Jim Crow," another societal construct used by the majority to exert its perennial power over the minority. The basis of Alexander's argument is compelling; the issue is that the evidence and reasoning behind her convictions fail to account for many significant factors. Alexander's piece is a powerful call to action against the racially-torn social system of this day and age. However, I continue to wait for the day that a call for black men to take personal accountability for themselves and their families rings out and resounds just as powerfully.