Young Black Men & Masculinity: Why We Still Can’t Wait

Written by: Riki Wilchins

Date: June 29, 2016

As is becoming increasingly widely recognized, it’s not safe to be any kind of Black man today in America. Just years ago, “respectability politics” still held sway: the argument that persistent lower life outcomes among young Black men were the result of their failure to internalize middleclass, dominant culture White ideals of manliness, from having a regular job and “acting right” to saying “thank you” and “yes, sir” on cue.

But in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Henry Louis Gates, Thabo Sefolosha and many, many others, it’s become clear that  “doing” middleclass manhood does not and will not inoculate young Black men from the ingrained attitudes and harms of structural racism. What is needed now is to work on two fronts simultaneously.

First, a real national conversation about manhood ideals and the fiction that more respectable masculinities somehow protect young men from oppression. Like so many things involving race, that dialog is long overdue.

Second, although the promise of “respectability politics” stands revealed as empty, it is still worthwhile to interrogate the ways that buying into rigid codes of masculinity are tied to lower life outcomes among young men, including young men of color.

In mining both of these ideas, TrueChild and Frontline Solutions have developed a new report. Titled “Addressing Masculine Norms to Improve Life Outcomes for Young Black Men: Why We Still Can’t Wait,” the report was co-branded and distributed by the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) at its annual conference in Baltimore, Md., on April 9th, and the focus of a panel presentation.

The panel, “Policy Change and Systems Reform: Bringing a Gender Norms Analysis to Racial & Economic Justice Work,” drew a standing-room only crowd. Presenters included:

  • Carmen Anderson (The Heinz Endowments).
  • Allison Brown (Communities for Just Schools Fund).
  • Micah Gilmore (Frontline Solutions).
  • Jahmal Miller (California Department of Public Health).
  • Maisha E. Simmons (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).
  • Riki Wilchins (TrueChild).

As Loren Harris noted in the Ford Foundation’s landmark 2007 report, “Why We Can’t Wait: A Case for Philanthropic Action,” “gender roles influence the way [young Black] men understand and engage educational opportunity, labor force participation, and relationships with women and other men … limiting conceptions of opportunity and success and exposing some to stigmatization, abuse and violence.”

That observation still rings true today. As does the argument by next-gen civil rights groups like #BlackLivesMatter and Dream Defenders for the right of young Black men to embody manhood on their own terms, whether or not it conforms to dominant culture, middle class ideals.

Despite this, funders and grantees are seldom challenged to do cutting edge work on gender like they are race and class. Yet all three continue to intersect in many pressing philanthropic concerns.

For instance, young men in low-income communities who buy into rigid codes of manhood are more likely to drop out of school early. If they are Black or Latino, they are also more likely to be expelled under school “push-out policies” designed to treat displays of urban masculinity as “oppositional behavior.” And as leading thinkers like Kimberlé Crenshaw note, similar dynamics of race, class AND gender are at work in the increasing over-policing and pushing out of young Black and Latina women for being too ” boisterous” or “unruly” – i.e., unfeminine.

This is one reason a core of leading foundations are beginning to embrace an “intersectional” approach that reconnects racial, economic AND gender justice to address structural oppressions. Isn’t time for more funders to do likewise?

Riki Wilchins is the executive director of True Child. Follow @truechild and @NCRP on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Association of Black Foundation Executives.