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Study Aims to Dispel Rhetoric about Black Men’s Success
By Jennifer Bihm
Published July 12, 2018

photo courtesy of The Institute for Family Studies

Findings from a recent study suggest that Black men in America may be more successful than what people think. Members of The Institute for Family Studies released the results last Tuesday in Washington DC, hoping to dispel common rhetoric, they said, about Black men that is often negative. The study addressed the economic standing of Black men, avenues to success for them and how much of a sense of control individuals felt they had over their own lives.  

“Over the last decade, much of the racial news in America has been sobering, if not downright depressing,” said IFS members. 

“Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Ferguson. Baltimore. Charleston. And, of course, Charlottesville. Writers and scholars like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander have underlined the enduring character of racial inequality and racism in America, and the ways in which America’s racial divide has exacted a particular kind of toll on Black men and Black boys.” 

Authors of the report;  W. Bradford Wilcox, Wendy R. Wang, and Ronald B. Mincy said that  more than one-in-two Black men (57%) have made it into the middle class or higher as adults today, up from 38% in 1960, according to a new analysis of Census data. And the share of Black men who are poor has fallen from 41% in 1960 to 18% in 2016. So, a substantial share of Black men in America are realizing the American Dream—at least financially—and a clear majority are not poor. 

Furthermore, they said, “as expected, higher education and full-time work look like engines of success for Black men in America. But three other institutions that tend to get less attention in our current discussions of race—the U.S. military, the Black church, and marriage—also appear to play significant roles in Black men’s success. For instance, Black men who served in the military are more likely than those who did not to be in the middle class when they reach mid-life (54% vs. 45%), according to our new analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79). Black men who frequently attended church services at a young age are also more likely to reach the middle class or higher when they are in their fifties: 53% of those men who attended church as young men made it, compared to 43% who did not.  

“Finally, about 70% of married Black men are in the middle class, compared to only 20% of never-married Black men and 44% of divorced Black men…” 

The authors presented their findings to a group of Black panelists that included Michelle Singletary, financial columnist for The Washington Post; Bradley Hardy of American University and senior fellow at Brookings Institution, and social entrepreneur Ian Rowe, the CEO of Public Preparatory Network. 

“This marries the data with what all of us know with our values,” Singletary told The Spectrum. 

“The military launched my husband’s father into middle-class status, which helped my husband go to college, which helps my kids.” 

The authors used a cohort of men born between 1957 and 1964 from their early years to ages 50 and older. The data they said, indicates that almost half of Black men (48%) are at least in the middle class by the time they reach their fifties, judging by their total family income (adjusted for their family size). 

Correcting overly negative depictions and attitudes regarding Black men is important because they shape how Black men are treated, and how Black men view their potential, authors said. 

“Research and experience show that expectations and biases on the part of potential employers, teachers, health care providers, police officers, and other stakeholders influence the life outcomes of millions of Black males,” said Alan Jenkins, executive director of Opportunity Agenda, a social justice organization. 

Meanwhile, the study also found that having contact with the criminal justice system at a young age was a major setback to success for Black men.  

“Contact with the criminal justice system more than doubles men’s odds of being poor in their fifties, although this effect seems to be mediated by its impact on their work and marital status,” authors said.  

“Education and full-time work also dramatically reduce the odds that Black men experience poverty in midlife. And, again, we find no evidence that childhood family structure affects Black men’s odds of being poor as middle-aged adults.” 

The findings, the authors wrote, suggest that more should be done to boost the probability for success among Black men in the country.  

Specifically, they said: 

  1. “Since cognitive skills begin to develop in early childhood, public efforts to improve and expand early education programs focusing on disadvantaged children, from programs modeled on earlier efforts like the Perry Preschool Project to today’s Nurse-Family Partnerships, could prove particularly helpful to Black boys, who hail disproportionately from lower-income families. 
  1. “When it comes to college, which is clearly of benefit to Black males, more needs to be done to increase the pipeline of Black men into higher education and to increase their graduation rates. This should involve targeting students from lower-income backgrounds, including Black men, with efforts—such as summer bridge programs—that boost their odds of attending college and graduating from college.” 
  1. “Efforts are also needed to reduce racial profiling and over-incarceration in the criminal justice system—from scaling back mandatory sentences to increasing funding for public defenders—in light of our findings. Given that the effects of contact with the criminal justice system appear to be mediated by factors such as work and marital status, more needs to be done to make sure that Black men preparing to leave prison receive adequate vocational training and the job placement they need to get a firm financial footing. For instance, a year of transitional employment coupled with optional drug treatment would be a step in the right direction, as would efforts to expand tax incentives to hire ex-prisoners.” 
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