African American Males in Authentic Context

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 Bryan Hudson 0 Comments

Author Note: This article has been re-published in light of recent concerns about African American males as well as an emphasis on problems related to black people. There are also racial profiling concerns rising from the case of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

It was originally published February 21, 2011


As it concerns African-Americans, and African-American males in particular (of which I am one), there are a lot of assumptions and stereotypes that shape the public's perceptions of black males. These assumptions about the group usually garner more interest and attention than learning about the individuals, apart from group identity.

Black males seem to be taken more as a monolith than most other ethnic groups of people. Not even the 44th President of the United States is beyond inclusion in these perceptions––and not all the perceptions are negative. There seems to be more of a willingness to review statistical studies on negative trends regarding black males, than to focus on individuals whose experiences are usually at odds with the statistics.

As Christians, we deal with individuals in a manner consistent with the theology of personal redemption. When we draw conclusions about an ethnic group, such as African American males, we tread on the shaky ground of group identity and stereotypical viewpoints such as, "Black males are _____________"

There seems to be an ethos in American culture that is comfortable with classifying people groups, more than getting to know individuals. This ethos is also sometimes reflected in the church.

I remember being one of a relatively few number of African Americans present at a Promise Keepers event, where the emphasis was racial reconciliation. The white guys were told that they needed to apologize to the black guys as representative of historic sins and mistreatment. While they got the historical part right, the solution was wrongheaded. A bunch of white guys in my section of a football stadium, whom I did not know, descended on me because I was black to offer their apologies, to ask my forgiveness and to get a “redemptive” hug. Of course I complied, even against my sense of reason and decorum. If I had refused, that would have put them (and myself!) in an awkward situation. So I became the object of their catharsis. In that moment, I did not want to be there. I did not need to be there. I was not interested in being the “BLACK GUY” who assuaged the guilt or filled the needs of white folk. (This same principle would apply regardless of race and ethnicity). I don't want my race to be a reason for my presence or utility. This was not the first occasion of an experience such as this. Many black folks are very familiar with this scenario.

This end of the spectrum can be described as, "I-need-you-because-you-are-black.”

That said, I’ve had many other experiences where relations with whites and others were normal, authentic, and where my race was not a factor. There are minorities who are comfortable being ethnically identified and are pleased to fulfill their role in representing diversity, but this should not be assumed of all minorities. Many of us hardly think of ourselves as “minorities,” which is only a status related to population, location, or a state of mind. 

The other end of this spectrum is best described as follows:

The liberal notion that more government programs can solve racial problems is simplistic—precisely because it focuses solely on the economic dimension. And the conservative idea that what is needed is a change in the moral behavior of poor black urban dwellers (especially poor black men, who, they say, should stay married, support their children, and stop committing so much crime) highlights immoral actions while ignoring public responsibility for the immoral circumstances that haunt our fellow citizens. The common denominator of these views of race is that each still sees black people as “problem people,” in the words of Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, rather than as fellow American citizens with problems. Her words echo the poignant “un-asked question” of W. E. B. Du Bois, who, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), wrote:

They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, "How does it feel to be a problem?" They say, "I know an excellent colored man in my town.…" Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

Nearly a century later, we confine discussions about race in America to the “problems” black people pose for whites rather than consider what this way of viewing black people reveals about us as a nation. This paralyzing framework encourages liberals to relieve their guilty consciences by supporting public funds directed at “the problems”; but at the same time, reluctant to exercise principled criticism of black people, liberals deny them the freedom to err. Similarly, conservatives blame the “problems” on black people themselves—and thereby render black social misery invisible or unworthy of public attention. Hence, for liberals, black people are to be “included” and “integrated” into “our” society and culture, while for conservatives they are to be “well behaved” and “worthy of acceptance” by “our” way of life. Both fail to see that the presence and predicaments of black people are neither additions to nor defections from American life, but rather constitutive elements of that life.

To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as a “them,” the burden falls on blacks to do all the “cultural” and “moral” work necessary for healthy race relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American—and the rest must simply “fit in."

(From Race Matters by Dr. Cornell West, Page 2)

This end of the spectrum can be described as "What's-wrong-with-black-people?”

African Americans as “problem people" is a long standing perception. It is a stereotype reinforced in the echo chambers of the news media, public service organizations, politics, and among some Christian organizations.

It is true that a great number of black males struggle in one way or another, but their spiritual struggles owe nothing to their blackness or maleness. These males who struggle drive downward the averages of statistical studies representing all black men. There are men who struggle in less statistically significant, but more impactful, ways. For example, the systemic greed of some white men on Wall Street resulted in the 2008 collapse of our national, and world, economy. However, we do not assign this behavior to white males using the same standard of concern applied to black males. We rightly reflect on the great work of white men in America and in the church.

The error in this approach of reasoning is that we ignore the individual work and accomplishments of motivated, hard-working, successful, and high achieving African American males, who have emerged from the same circumstances, schools, and neighborhoods as their struggling counterparts. Statistics and metrics cannot define individual success. This data can only marginalize and diminish members of a group whose statistics may lag behind others.

I see the motivation and the “success-against-all-odds” demonstrated by black males all the time! Why do we not focus on these successful black males? Why are they not celebrated? It seems to me that one would learn more talking to African Americans who have succeeded. We are more focused mainly on negative factors related to race and ethnicity, and especially of black males. Much of the focus on the struggles of black males, rather than the successes, provides a basis for funding studies and programs. (Read the thought provoking article, "Who Gets the Money?"). We already know the negative forces and factors that adversely affect "at risk" people––and they are not all black folks or poor folks in urban settings. 

The best solution is to serve everyone, all the time! We should work hardest where we live and are vested. We must love and serve our “neighbors” as Jesus instructed us. We are our “brothers’ keeper.”

When race and ethnicity issues need to be addressed, let the elders and leaders in a given culture lead the way. Everyone else should follow and support. This is the reality in almost every other culture from Native American, to Jewish American, to Latino American. Should a study of African Americans or black males be conducted without the blessing and guidance of people within the community, especially the elders? A published study that reports on the nature and character of a people needs the moral authority afforded by engagement with stakeholders, participants, and their cultural fathers/mothers.

If one wanted to understand the effects of space travel on the human body, the people who can best provide an accurate perspective are those who have traveled into space, and those responsible for space travel. No amount of research by an urban dweller, such as myself, could rival the insights and conclusions of space travelers reporting on space travelers.

It seems that divine justice requires an approach to interpersonal and intercultural understanding that places a premium on learning about individuals, not groups, and that insists on authentic contexts.

Acts 10:34-35 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.

~ Rev. Bryan Hudson. Th.B., B.S., M.S.