We See the Dead and Don’t See the Living: The Realities of Black Men

Aug 22, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Keon L. Gilbert, DrPH, MA, MPA, is an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science & Health Education at St. Louis University's College for Public Health and Social Justice and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee.

Headshot of Keon Gilbert

Involuntary martyrs.

In 1999, 28-year-old Demetrius DuBose, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was shot 12 times by two officers in his San Diego neighborhood. DuBose was a former co-captain of Notre Dame’s famed football team. His death came after he was questioned and harassed regarding a burglary in his neighborhood. Officers reported they had no choice but to shoot DuBose while he was handcuffed because they feared for their lives.

Many of these details sound similar to those surrounding the death of Michael (Mike) Brown Jr., who was shot at least six times in Ferguson, Missouri, this month. Brown was unarmed. He was reportedly fleeing from a police officer who also felt his life was in danger. 

What is missing from this picture is that black males also feel threatened and distrustful of authority figures and are routinely disengaged from contexts such as schools, medical facilities and neighborhoods. The narrative remains the same: Black males who die from excessive force become involuntary martyrs for the sustained legacy of institutional and interpersonal racism that is associated with the health disparities plaguing black communities. 

Black Men Living and Dying with the Brutality

The field of public health is poorly equipped to fully understand and study excessive use of force and police brutality against black males. This type of social phenomenon goes virtually unnoticed until we have a tragic event like Mike Brown’s death. Many incidents of police brutality go unreported and are not reflected in homicide and unintentional injury mortality rates. The reality is when black males turn 15, the number one cause of death is homicide and second is unintentional injury. This remains the case until they reach age 35.

For black males who make it to 35, a nearly two-decade-long era of fear, anxiety and stress ends. These risk factors may partially explain why heart disease takes over as the leading cause of death for the next decade. Mortality by some injurious means is the unfortunate reality for many black males. The stress of trying to escape such outcomes may also pose a risk of death—a classic example of John Henryism. From sociological and psychological perspectives, fear, anxiety and chronic stress arise from the daily experiences of racial discrimination. How can we truly build a culture of health, when many black males live in constant fear for their lives?

There is a long socio-historical context that explains many reasons black males distrust authority figures and social institutions that are supposed to protect and serve (e.g., police, legal, health care), and foreshadows the death of Mike Brown Jr. This historical context sets the stage for the health care and health disparities we observe for black men. Black men have the shortest life expectancy of all groups in the United States. Black men are more likely to have an early onset of chronic diseases such as hypertension and have less access to health care services. Many black males are unemployed or underemployed, undereducated, and are perceived as threats by police as they struggle to achieve a sense of manhood within communities that choose to police—but not nurture or aid—them.

Legal and Socially Sanctioned Brutality

The history of lynching black men is illuminating. Lynchings were a way to instill fear, implement social control, and position blacks as social problems—especially black males. Many black males were shot, hanged, castrated or tortured in other ways. Their deaths were often part of public displays and were documented in scores of photos. Mike Brown’s lifeless body remained in the streets of Ferguson for hours, reminding neighbors of the lack of trust in police, the lack of control they have over their community, and that unarmed black men suffer violent ends.

"How can we truly build a culture of health, when many black males live in constant fear for their lives?"

The second threat to black men after the Civil War arose as the private prison complex created a new form of enslavement through the convict lease system.  This involved arresting many of the recently freed men and women for minor violations and giving heavy fines and long prison sentences. Many were confined permanently in the prison camps.

The criminalization of black males suggests that when they commit crimes, the penalty is death. The release of the video alleging that Mike Brown shoplifted began to paint a narrative that criminal behavior is punishable by death. However, the slow response of St. Louis County to properly investigate the shooting of Mike Brown by a white police officer has sparked, to date, 10 days of protest, suggesting the officer’s actions were justified partly because of his role as an officer but, more importantly, because of the privilege of his white skin. This social reality of crime plays out in many scenarios and across most criminal behaviors, as race and gender determine punishment in inequitable ways.

Anywhere, U.S.A.

The St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area is an example of many communities in America that are deeply segregated. St. Louis ranks ninth according to the U.S. Census Bureau, mirroring conditions that gave rise to both lynchings and convict leasing years ago. Blacks who live in impoverished communities, with few economic opportunities, poor access to education, and little access to health care and recreational outlets, are subjected to over-policing.

Ferguson is more than 65 percent black, nestled in the northern section of St. Louis County where many blacks migrated to seek opportunity outside of the city. As more black residents moved in, white residents moved westward but did not relinquish political and economic control, which is evidenced by the Ferguson police force, which is 94 percent white. This police force helps to generate half of Ferguson’s revenue in the form of traffic tickets that are disproportionately given to black residents.

The unrepresentative Ferguson police force, city council and school board prevent black residents from controlling their own realities. As we see images of the militarization of Ferguson and its residents experience yet another form of being occupied, we can argue that Ferguson was socially, politically and economically occupied even before the National Guard arrived on August 19th. The imagery of nightly military confrontation with protestors in Ferguson harkens back to the 1985 MOVE disaster in Philadelphia, in which police, caught in a tense stand-off with a “back to nature” counter-culture group, dropped a bomb that set a neighborhood on fire. Sixty homes were destroyed and 11 people died, including five children.

Many communities like Ferguson and St. Louis lack sustained community development to achieve the capacity that can provide individual, community, social, economic and health resilience. These efforts should be organized by grassroots organizations to build indigenous sources of social, economic and physical capital that may help prevent racial profiling and criminalization of black males and protect them when it occurs. Implementing sustainable change can also begin to erode the effects of systemic racism that are deeply embedded in the social fabric of the nation.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.