Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

The Gap: In a Single Statistic, the Measure of a Racial Tragedy

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May 5, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) There are nearly 2 million more black adult women than men in America, stark testimony to how often black men die before their time.
Worse yet, with nearly another million black men in prison or the military, the reality in most black communities across the country is of an even greater imbalance _ a gap of 2.8 million, or 26 percent, according to Census Bureau figures for 2002. The comparable disparity for whites was 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 leave them bereft of brothers, fathers, husbands and sons. And because the number of black males plummets as they move from their teens to their 20s, the gap first appears with the suddenness of a natural disaster.
“It just distorts the fabric of African-American life,” says Roland Anglin, executive director of the New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute, which studies how 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 President Clinton and now the interim president of 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 on Chicago’s South Side, two-thirds of the black boys and one-third of the black girls who reached 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, N.J., a small city edging Newark where all the dilemma’s manifestations are etched in sharp relief and where three years ago Edwards started Teens Against Violence Everywhere (TAVE). “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?”
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 those communities with large concentrated black populations that are the hub of African-American life, and it is as good an indicator as any of things gone wrong.
There are more than 30 percent more black women than men in Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland, and in smaller cities like Harrisburg, Pa., Syracuse, N.Y., Flint, Mich., and Mobile and Birmingham, Ala.
There are 36 percent more black women than men in New York City, and 37 percent more in Saginaw, Mich., in Philadelphia, and in East Orange.
Darryl Jeffries, the spokesman for East Orange, calls his city “the most densely populated community of color in the United States.” Not four square miles, it holds more than 70,000 people. Mostly black. Some Hispanics. A few whites.
In 2000, there were more black males under 18 than females in East Orange. 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, from which he graduated in 2000.
“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 Portland, Ore., native who works at East Orange General Hospital while pursuing her master’s degree in public health.
Of the five, Perryman says one was a suicide, 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.”
And of the surviving members of his crew of 12, he says, “most are in jail.”
According to The Sentencing Project in Washington, on any given day in America, one in eight black males aged 25 to 29 is incarcerated, and nearly a third of all black men in their twenties are behind bars, on probation or 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 the teens and 20s are but the first gauntlet black males must run. Evans knows.
She was five when her father, 42, was killed on the job at Tappan Range Gas Stoves in Newark when a machine fell on him, fracturing his skull. Of her four brothers, two died of heart attacks in their 40s, a third, suffering from diabetes and kidney failure, just 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 over a woman and three are dead of heart attacks, all before they were 50.
By the time you get to people in 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.”
“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.”
Most obviously, there are simply not enough black men to go around, especially as matches for the numbers of successful black women.
“Mr. Right is not in the house,” says Blanche Richardson, who runs her family’s bookstore, Marcus Books, in Oakland, Calif., and is the editor of “Best Black Women’s Erotica.”
“The last three boyfriends I had, all three of them have been from Africa,” says Jolivette Anderson, a poet, performer and activist who grew up in Shreveport, La., lived many years in Jackson, Miss., and is now a program supervisor at Purdue University’s Black Cultural Center. Increasingly, she says, black women are willing to share a man, a kind of de facto polygamy.
When he first started TAVE, Edwards had the teens draw their family trees, an exercise in self-discovery. But, he discovered, “A lot of the kids didn’t know their father or if they did, only knew his name. We stopped doing it because it was causing more harm than good.”
Too often, Edwards says, boys are thrust into the breach without being prepared to avoid making the same “bad decisions” as the men missing from their lives.
“A lot of mothers raising black boys make the mistake of telling them, `You are the man of the house,”’ he says. “I tell a kid quicker than a hurry that `You’re not the man of nothing. You may be the oldest male in the house. You may be the only male in the house. But you’re not the man of nothing.”
Bob Lee stands in the doorway at Booji, a one-chair barbershop attached to a much larger women’s salon in East Orange near the corner of Lincoln and Main Street, which also bears the sign “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.” He casts a cool eye on the passing scene.
“I think a lot of black men grasp conflict over understanding because that’s what they think everybody else is thinking,” Lee says slowly, deliberately.
Yayah Bilal, the barber, says that when they were younger, it seemed there was “always some big brother on the block” who could step in if somebody went “haywire.” Now it’s all haywire. “East Orange is Blood territory,” Bilal says. “You didn’t know that?”
Lee watches a woman struggling across the street with three small children and wonders if there is a man in their life. “Look,” he says. “She can’t handle it.”
It was Geronimus, the University of Michigan researcher, who developed the analytical framework she called “weathering” to describe the lifetime of stresses black people face at every turn that wears them down and wears them out, that can compromise their health and contribute to their dying young.
“It can just beat you down,” says Haki Madhubuti, the Chicago poet, publisher, educator and author of such books as “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?” and “Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Creating Exceptional Black Men.” He says it’s why he became a vegan and tries to bike 20 to 25 miles a day.
Madhubuti says that the stress of being black takes a special toll on the minds of 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,” he says. “Many brothers just drop out.”
Jolivette Anderson’s father, Jethro, was a foreman at a munitions plant in Shreveport, a good husband and father and a pillar of the community. But, she recalls, when she was a teenager, “I remember my father saying, `I’m here, but I ain’t running nothing.’ To me it was a shock. Daddy was the king.”
Last year, Anderson’s father died. He was 66. “Colon cancer,” she says. “He wasn’t getting his check-ups even though it takes out every man in his family.”
At 57, Winbush feels lucky. He survived a heart attack and bypass surgery. He has never been in prison, unlike his brother, a convicted murderer. But with the approach of his 40th reunion at John Adams High School in Cleveland, his alumni news is coming via the obituaries. “Every week I hear of people shot, drugged out, HIV, just anything, and most of the people who have died are black males,” he says.
Where he teaches, at historically black Morgan State, 57 percent of the students are women. At Hampton University, from which Christina White graduated, the student body is nearly two-thirds female, and at Fisk University, where Winbush formerly taught, more than 70 percent of the students are women.
“There’s only one black college where men outnumber women and that’s Morehouse,” says Winbush, referring to the only all-male historically black college.
Not so, though, at the Morehouse School of Medicine, where Satcher notes, “black women significantly outnumber black men.”
Apart from their own upward mobility, Satcher says that black women’s gains in life expectancy owe much to Medicaid, which provides health coverage for poor women and their children, but generally only men who are blind, disabled or elderly.
Noah Lewis, the president of 100 Black Men of New Orleans, which sponsors prostate and blood pressure screening for men, says that black men without insurance can turn to the charity hospital there, and wait as long as four to eight hours to be seen.
Or, says Lewis, who is in the insurance business, they can, as is their druther, avoid doctors altogether.
“Black men, just like all men, don’t go to the doctor unless they really feel they have to, and that’s even more extreme with black men, because so many of them are wary of the health care system. They don’t really forget what happened with the Tuskegee experiment,” he says, referring to the 40 years the Public Health Service used poor black men in Alabama as guinea pigs in a federal study of the effects of syphilis.
“Men in our community see most of the doctors are not African-Americans and if we are, we don’t talk like the brother on the corner,” says Dr. Alvaro Simmons, acting president and CEO of Newark Community Health Centers, which operates a clinic in East Orange.
By contrast, Simmons says, black women, as mothers, can hardly avoid medical care. “Mom has to be friendly with the health care system,” he says.
By day, East Orange’s boulevards of grand old buildings and magnificent churches suggest its history as a prestige community, first mostly white and then, beginning in the 1970s, increasingly black. The mayor, Robert Bowser, is descended from a line of architects and civil engineers who have been in the city since the 1800s. It’s a place of black firsts, says Jeffries, the son of a chemistry teacher whose family moved here in the 1920s. In 1969, East Orange was the first New Jersey municipality to elect a black mayor, a year ahead of neighboring Newark. It is the hometown of Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and Queen Latifah.
“Growing up in Newark it was `where I want to live when I grow up,”’ says Rochelle Evans, the interim health director.
These days East Orange is gamely trying to regain its balance, and Evans is contending with issues of infant mortality, lead poisoning, gun violence, AIDS and even blood-pressure screenings for teenagers.
“When I was growing up it was a grandma disease to have high blood pressure,” she says. “Now it’s 15- and 16-year-olds.”
Nowadays too, says Jeffries, most children here know someone who has been shot, teenagers plan their own funerals and drivers contend with young people who casually step into moving traffic hoping for a payday.
“Their aspirations just aren’t normal. They’re living a very abnormal existence,” he says. “When I grew up there were great restaurants, four movie theaters, four car dealerships. People dressed up to shop in East Orange. We had everything. We grew up in a nuclear family. I grew up with a father and mother. …
“They’re under siege,” he says of this generation. “We had Ozzie and Harriet.”

Written by jonathantilove

March 14, 2010 at 7:01 am

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