Their litany is lethal, if not genocidal. Twenty-five percent of African American males between the ages of 20-29 are either on parole, incarcerated or under some other control of the criminal justice system. The U.S. government imprisons African American males at a rate four times greater than the apartheid South Africa jailed its black male population. Forty percent of black males who drop out of school cannot find employment: with overall black male youth unemployment, in some areas, up to seventy percent. The African American community makes up roughly twelve percent of the U.S. population but (with black males comprising a significant portion) represents over forty-four percent of drug possession arrests and over twenty-seven percent of the reported AIDS cases. Up to seventy percent of black homes have no fathers present. Furthermore, murder is the number one cause of death among African American males between the ages of 15 and 34.
In a different vein, black middle class and professional men face their own problems of success. They comprise only four percent of all undergraduate faculty. In 1976, blacks received 6.6 percent of all M.A. degrees: in 1989, 4.9 percent. In the same year, blacks earned 4.5 percent of all professional degrees; in 1989, 4.4 percent; in 1979, 1,056 doctorates were conferred on African Americans; in 1989, only 811. Black businessmen cannot acquire needed loans regardless of their credit rating. While affluent suburbia has forced black middle class families into segregated black "ghetto" spots. And, with unforgettable reminders, the perpetual glass ceiling remains a persistent sign for black professional men. Regardless of their qualifications, black professionals know that white, junior colleagues with poorer credentials, may someday become their future bosses. 2
Clearly, the various racial experiences of black poor and middle class males signify at least two things. One, both groups suffer from instances of racial and cultural discrimination. No matter what one's station in life, if you are a black male in North America, racism is endemic as the nation's taste for apple pie. For example, black middle-class males, wearing their $4,000 Armani suits, have been left standing on the curbsides in frustration because taxi cabs refused to pick them up. Whites quickly close elevators on black men who are corporate executives in the very same buildings housing these black executives. And some white women, in broad daylight, are oftentimes just as likely to cross a street and clutch their pocketbooks whether they are facing an oncoming middle class or poor black man. A pervasive set of codes and attitudes regarding black male glue the total African American experience, regardless of background.
Second, we can perceive discrepancies in the degree of racial oppression between these two occupants of different economic classes. Black poor, underclass or working-class men don't even have the opportunity to face housing discrimination or the possible "run around" in attempts to buy vacation homes in the Caribbean, Hawaii, or Martha's Vineyard. Likewise, they can not complain about the poor (racist?) service that waiters and waitresses exhibit in a $300-a-meal restaurant. For the poor, discussion about whether to live among black folks or in Westchester County, New York or Atherton, California, is a foreign language. More than likely, they will not focus on the debate whether to send their children (or go themselves) to historic black colleges or to the elite white Ivy League institutions. They will not face the luxury of purchasing a Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, or a Japanese top-of-the-line car for comfort and status. Thus, black men (and indeed, the entire African American community) face a "rich brother-poor brother" syndrome.
But what concerns us is not so much the controversy over the primacy of white racism or economic class as the paramount evil facing black men. Clearly, the connection of these two demonic faces (among others) has to be an integral part of any faith analysis or solution. What concerns us here are the value judgments and lifestyles that could support and help clarify whatever debates and practical solutions develop from the growing chasm between poor and rich black males. Coming from the side of the black male professional class, I think part of the foundation for bridging the gap lies in the propagation and practice of faith, family, education and political culture.
Above all, the African American Christian Church has been the premier advocate and leader of what it means to have faith in the black community in general. More specifically, the black church, from slavery until today, remains the main institution for gathering and training black men for leadership in and accountability to the entire African American community. This training has taken place regardless of one's class or stature. It planted a spiritual awareness which laid the groundwork for the ethical practice of better-off males shoring up those with less economic and political power.
Furthermore, the black church has provided a haven for black men who suffer the daily humiliations and destructive macho images of a predominately white society. The church, in other words, has offered a refuge, fostering family responsibility, and allowed black men to experience their own feelings. One of the few public places where African American males can cry and also be affirmed about their strong place in the family is the black church. Any bridging of the poor brother-rich brother has to either start with the church or, to attain success, include black religious institutions (of all denominations and faith persuasions) at the core of it's activities.
Closely aligned to the church is the importance of the black family in undergirding the rebuilding of the relationships between "rich" and "poor" black males. Since the original days in Africa and, more negatively, the forced removal of the father and the brothers from the slave family, we have always believed that the absence of a male figure in the nuclear family household does not preclude the strength of male role models throughout the broader communal ties.
Put differently, the rich brothers have to offer themselves and their vocations as examples of God's possibilities for the have-nots of our African American families, in both blood and non-blood ties. The black men who have more need to help combat the negative alternatives presented to black men who have less. Many times, poor black brothers have to react violently and futilely to the damning negatives imposed by the larger white society since the images and networks the poor have are models of a "bad nigger."
A bad nigger is anti-traditional black family; a babymaker without responsibility, a gunslinger and a cool dresser, whose substance is the cadence of his rap and hip in his hop. Those of us who have or are on the way to "making it" cannot forget how we got over. In addition to the church, some black male mentor (teacher, scoutmaster, coach, principal, businessman, politician, old man across the street, barber, or whomever) talked to us and showed us what is possible. And it was this extended family black male that inspired us to move to higher levels of self achievement and, simultaneously, maintain a sense of accountability toward the larger black community. As we went out into the world, these older black men always reminded us that we not only represented ourselves in what we did, but our conduct, worth, and achievement also reflected back on the family community. All "rich brothers," then, have to position themselves, at some level, so that brothers faced with literal life and death issues can know what family means. Middle-class black men share a related responsibility to black male children in both their nuclear and extended families.
Likewise, education complements the foundational values of church and family. Those better-off black males who know the worth of education must share knowledge with poor brothers who don't. There has always been a group of black men in our community who didn't believe that it was a "sissy thing" to study, attend classes, and do homework. To be "down" with what's happening meant being up on the books. But, unfortunately, today there exists a strong tendency to harass black male youths who take educational studies seriously. Such a backward tendency can be stopped by a positive correlation between African American "manhood" and the life of the mind. How can an enriched black self-identity and African centered values take place if poor brothers can't even read? We need to redirect the profound intellectual energy found in the "street" black male's ability to rap and "play the dozens." They need to know that their wisdom from below is the same mind power that can be utilized for the more traditional creative learning. That transfer of intellectual skills will occur when they grasp the power of education for both self-esteem and social transformation. Education can open up for the poor brother not only increased preparedness for jobs, but also a whole new horizon concerning what other people of color around the world are doing and what are the historical traditions of the black life in this country. Thus, education is practical. It envisions solidarity and subversive preparation against a destructive status quo, Black professional males need to share a fuller meaning of understanding to those who have "turned off" to public schools.
Finally, let us consider the value of black political culture. A middle-class and poor-black male relationship should base itself primarily on the positive cultural resources within the African American community. By "culture," I mean everything and anything that black people possess that can halt the genocide of the African American male population in North America. Culture is a lifestyle. It is both written and oral, conscious and unconscious. It is how one conduct one's daily affairs; how one sleeps, eats, works and relates to others. Black culture is the total bond as well as a specific self-identity. But the rallying of an internal black culture is important insofar as it is also political. By "politics," I mean remaking a larger, negative power system that is based on individualism and the monopolistic hoarding of God's gifts by roughly 200 mega-rich white American families.
For instance, in the last 12 months of his life, Martin Luther King perceived this point. "Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States." Black folks "are not interested in being integrated into this value structure." Why? Because, King preached, "power must be relocated, a radical redistribution of power must take place."3 For the "rich brother" with access to monies, networks, electoral politics, media, etc., there is a need to keep in focus the larger picture of America and the world. Ultimately, the plight of the poor brother depends partly on the democratization of the major economic resources in North America. Similarly, it depends partly on changing the faceless powerbrokers (the old boys network). Those black brothers who have "made it" should not stop now. A society that allowed the rich brother to sneak through has to give way to a democratic one that prioritizes and privileges the life of the poor brother.
In the final analysis, the quality of life and spiritual peace of the middle-class black males rests on the predicament and prospects of the poor brother.
I don't suggest that guilt will spur on the rich brother to search for ways to implement faith, family, education, and political culture as adequate value judgments and lifestyles. Guilt can only lead to condescension. On the contrary, initiative to relate to poor and working class African American males should come from middle class blacks because the latter's lives are also at stake. At one level, the rich brother's own humanity is threatened and lost as long as the poor brother suffers. To be human, in the African and African American tradition, is to be in community. Broken humanity somewhere affects humanity everywhere. On another level, ethics dictate that it is the right thing to do. This belief is deep within black culture. Sometimes it is called "what goes around comes around," or "you reap what you sow," or "God don't like ugly." In any case, it projects a faith in the inevitability of nature's laws to move toward justice for the weak. On a third level, Christian, African American brothers have the added responsibility and joy of doing God's work for those without voices who are in pain. When Christ calls us to accountability, we should hope to hear Christ's words:
For I was hungry and you
gave me food, I was thirsty
And you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed
me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and
you came to me... Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one
of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matthew 25: 31-46)
1This essay represents an edited version of the original which appeared in Amazing Grace!, October 1991. This was my very first published essay.
2 For issues facing African American males, Kenneth Meeks, Driving While Black: What To Do If You Are A Victim of Racial Profiling (New York: Broadway Books, 2000) and Manning Marable, ed. Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
3 Quoted in David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 581.
Rev. Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins is an ordained American Baptist minister. He is Associate Professor of Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Dr. Hopkins received his M.Div., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees from Union Theological Seminary, New York and also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Hopkins has published several books including Introducing Black Theology of Liberation, Down, Up and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology and Black Faith and Black Talk: Essays in Honor of James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power (editor). This article is used by permission.