“Black Male Privilege in One Hand and Bull$#! in the Other, Which One Fills Up First?: Challenging the Myth of Black Male Privilege” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

BLACK MALE PRIVILEGE?

In recent years, assumptions of Black Male Privilege have permeated discussions about identity, power, and oppression in Black gender discourses. Hell, in my feminist classes throughout graduate school, the concept was all the rage, as was a healthy skepticism of empirical data. Data was “skewed,” “unreliable,” and “subject to manipulation,” but as much as it can be true that every pundit can spin data to suit their argument, I found out the hard way that so, too, is it true that ideology can be just as misguided and manipulated.

In other words, assumptions about Black males as patriarchal are highly problematic in that they assume “patriarchy” as an institution (or set of interlocking institutions) that exist in a static context, in all places for all time to benefit anyone with a penis. This type of lazy analysis has unfairly branded males of all ages across race, class, and most particularly gender in an uncritical, unreflective manner.

Upon hearing about Black Male Privilege over the years, I initially assumed it to be a social truth, and to that extent I was right. Most people who had done a college degree and “officially” studied gender and identity were clear that it existed. So much so that when I wrote my piece on racial sexism, I was told that Black males could not be victims of sexism because they were men, they just suffered from “that Black male shit.” Even though I could explain my argument, that the particular injustices Black males face are due to both their race and their gender, most seemed to believe that it couldn’t be true because, after all, they’re males. I, too, once believed that. After all, I took gender courses from wise, passionate matriarchs that had shared their pain, their personal experiences, and their particularly brilliant lessons about gender but never described males beyond the confines of patriarchy (if they mentioned them at all). To ask about where males fit in feminism was dismissed as re-centering the discourse on males (i.e. you were re-articulating patriarchy). With that said, how could such male privilege not be true if they said it was? I mean, it never dawned on me that there might be an equally wise, brilliant Black male response to gender issues raised by Black Feminists that accounted for our humanity. Yet the only Black male scholars that might’ve argued for Black male humanity beyond limited, stereotypical tropes were dismissed as “mansplaining,” “patriarchs,” or “apologists of rape culture.”

In addition, the only established, respectable Black male public intellectuals found in grad school dealing with gender such as Mark Anthony Neal, Byron Hurt, and Jelani Cobb only described gender (almost word-for-word) as Black Feminist do…but void of any measured critique (or semblance of it) of Black Feminist ideological portrayals of Black males (even instinctively, I’ve always found this type of pandering to feminists to be dubious at best, patronizing at worst).

When looking up Black male privileges, one will inevitably find Jewel Woods’ checklist of the Renaissance Project. Much like Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Woods lists a series of things he calls “privileges” that pertain to Black males. Most of Woods’ checklist, however, focuses on themes of public attention, such as males being the primary preoccupation of historical texts, news stories, and political heroes. Yet something he does not account for is that Black males do not control elite institutions such as media companies, news media conglomerates, publishing houses, university committees that determine standards of normative history-making, etcetera. If anything, these institutions practice reflective patriarchy, where the cultural morays pertaining to Western androcentric elitism is assumed to function in the colonized group the way it does amongst Whites. Thus, as far back as Reconstruction, when White society sought Black leadership, sought stories of Black pain/liberation, sought themes of Black humanity, or sought Black churches that maintained familiar social infrastructures, they reflectively sought what mirrored their own cultural productions.

Yet despite whatever may be in a given culture, Western cultural colonialism imposed patriarchy on its victims–namely African Americans. It is likely that this cultural imposition may have produced residual benefits (see below), but these are not privileges, nor do these practices encapsulate how Black men see themselves or their roles in families. As far as the power dynamics of the Black traditionalist nuclear family structure, such traditional dynamics have been lauded by both well-known and everyday Black folk–both men and women, historically and contemporarily–as a means of negotiating White society’s familial modus operandi and courting their expectations of social respectability. In other words, internalized patriarchy in Black communities was regarded as progressivism by many Black middle-class elites, women as well as men. They believed that “patriarchy” (what we retroactively call it now) didn’t empower Black men and dis-empower Black women (especially since, for example, neither could vote until the 1960s), rather it differently empowered both in a white society that previously didn’t regard either Black males or females the social status of having a ‘gender.’ By mirroring the white community’s familial make-up, it was believed that we would more readily be accepted as both human and citizen in American society–post-slavery. More so, shifting Black women into the domestic sphere and Black men into the public sphere wasn’t believed to be a power imbalance, but simply a means of functioning. As such, Black women in Black families often shaped families and never lacked the capacity to make decisions, even in Black attempts to embody progressivist practices. In other words, unlike White women, Black women have always worked outside the home, and like White women, Black women were both politically aware and ran the domestic space, a position that framed the moral, political, and administrative direction of the family…despite narratives to the contrary. This bifurcated social power dynamic did not leave women powerless, most especially White women.

The perspective that “attitudes and beliefs” on men’s part constitutes material “privilege” is highly questionable, as one’s beliefs may have little connection to the the reality of people’s practices, especially in regard to institutions… Overall, aside from the idea that Black males with comparable education make more money, there are few other “privileges” listed with empirical backing, as most are anecdotal. Yet even this one is problematic, as Becky Pettit’s invaluable text, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012) points out the invisibility of Black male prisoners and soldiers when it comes to data sets on Black males’ income, voting, and education rates. She states, “For Black males, ‘…incarceration contributes to growing joblessness, especially among low-skill black men. Increased joblessness due to incarceration drove up reports of average wages of blacks, inflating estimates of black economic progress.”

The data asserts that Black women earn up to 95 percent of every black male dollar earned, but this overlooks incarceration. So the reports error threefold: first, they overlook the sweatshop wages earned (an average of $14 every other week) by 950,000 Black male inmates in 2007 according to Mauer & King, 2007 (now down to approximately 745,000 in 2015 according to the Bureau of Justice National Prisoner Statistics) that when added would dramatically decrease the official tally of black male income, as the current tally overlooks class). Second, by ignoring incarceration altogether, inmates were made invisible to national statistics. This means that the estimated income of black males was exaggerated because fewer black males are being tallied for a designated static income base. Third, as over 50.2% of these black male inmates lack a high school diploma, they are ineffably tied to life-long impoverishment, meaning that their long-term earning potential is permanently stunted, whereas Black women’s earnings are poised to increase (newly designated the highest degreed social demographic–albeit paid below their worth). This is further complicated by the fact that in many U.S. urban centers such as New York and Philadelphia, 90% of the abject homeless (the pinnacle of impoverishment) are male, with up to 40-50% of them being Black males (this is particularly alarming when you consider that Black males make up roughly 5% of the total population but half of several major cities’ homeless). Also, because many of these men cannot vote, their future income opportunities will likely not be buoyed by legislation that privileges their interests. Furthermore, many of the jobs working-class, non-incarcerated Black males work are in death professions (see Slide #2 below) such as police officers, firemen, garbage men, or gang members. Lastly, Black males often have the highest rates of unemployment, even when measured against Black women (i.e.- Black male teenagers actually have a national rate of 83%)! When taking these myriad issue under advisement, we find that the income matter is hardly settled…

Although Woods’ checklist may be useful in a therapeutic context as an exercise in humility, checking people’s attitudes about how they see others does not necessarily address the material differences in how Black men and women negotiate the world. You see, here, empirical data can give us context. In each of the areas below, Black males are generally at the worst end of the spectrum (or are far more impacted than one might believe) in areas such as birth issues, circumcision, police violence, fatherhood family absence, gendered violence, high school and college graduation rates, health, drugs/alcohol addiction, gendered income gaps, unemployment, police/vigilante brutality, homelessness, male abuse, gendered rape, incarceration, male rape/sexual assault, war rape, prostitution, life expectancy, suicide, sexist attitudes about gender roles, selective service, and many more areas…


DEFINING PRIVILEGE 

Let’s be clear about something. Privilege is an extension of power. Period. Privilege provides elites with opportunities to segregate those with it from those without it, and if you don’t possess the institutional means to create it or maintain it, you. don’t. have. privilege. This is why I use the notion of residual benefits. It’s a more useful way of describing what oppressed groups have that appear to be privileges. Residual benefits are crude advantages with the appearance of privilege but lack the institutional backing of privileges (i.e.-Black women share in the benefits of feminists gains, but still suffer intersectionally in a wide variety of ways). They may give the appearance of privilege in one given regard (male, hetero, or rich), but often for Black men, such intersections often don’t mean privilege, but more complex forms of institutional oppression. In other words, these crude advantages are reflections of real privilege found in White society, but they only benefit oppressed groups superficially.

privilegeSLIDE #1

The slide below provides greater context for some of the so-called “privileges” listed above.privilege2

SLIDE #2

Each “privilege” actually masks a more nuanced form of oppression. This is the core notion of the concept of residual benefits, they are illusions that mask more oppressive contexts. They’re advantages that are predicated on disparages rather than privileges. For example, a Black male elite athlete may seem to have greater privilege because he has easier access to elite colleges with resources than someone without such athletic gifts, but more often than not such athletes not only don’t make it into a professional league, they often end up as college dropouts–and even then they still do NOT represent the average Black male experience! Meanwhile their universities will make money off of them while they receive no pay, and if they get hurt they are often left with nothing.

In essence, both groups experience severe oppression, and the minor residual benefits that Black males AND FEMALES might enjoy are usually highly contextual in regard to a small population of Black elites (i.e. athletes, entertainers, lawyers, doctors, etc.), but not the masses of Black folk, most of whom find difficulty at every turn in regard to public access to opportunities for social advancement. For example, Alice Goffman highlights the residual benefits Black women, the elderly, and the middle-class enjoy that many poor Black males do not when she states,

“As men are largely the ones caught up in the criminal justice system, there exists in part a gender divide–in many couples, the woman is not only free from legal entanglements–she likely works in the formal economy or receives government assistance, whereas the man makes his sporadic income in the streets, doing things for which he could be arrested. There is also an age divide–overwhelmingly, it is young people who are mired in legal entanglements, not older people. And third, there is a class divide, for it is most typically unemployed young men without high school diplomas who are dipping and dodging the police, who have probation sentences to complete and court cases to attend.” -Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (New York: Picador, 2014), p. 6.

Comedian Chris Rock playfully addresses this in HBO’s The Chris Rock Show in a skit focused on “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.” Although one can say he blames the victims a bit, his analysis is directed at the very population Goffman highlights: poor, uneducated, Black males. Prescriptive, yet hilarious, the piece outlines what Rock considers “common sense” tactics for negotiating the scenarios that Goffman points to empirically. He could explain that, more often than not, the rage many Black males feel from being socially and legally repressed manifests in all kinds of ways, some which he discusses here. More to the point, he playfully outlines the residual benefits Black women have in relation to believability when dealing with law enforcement and the extent to which Black males do not have privilege (scroll to 3:10 min).

Although intersectionality makes Black female residual benefits virtually invisible while making Black men’s hyper-visible, such benefits exist materially in that these women more often than not do not get arrested and tend to have jobs. Yet, Black women, the Black elderly, and even the Black middle-class do not have privilege. Black women are undoubtedly oppressed, especially in regard to health, poverty, income (particularly in relation to Whites); the elderly are not only systematically ignored, their social security benefits have been eroding for some time now, ensuring that their presence is not valued; and lastly, the middle-class only came to be mostly after World War II, but its size has been eroding dramatically, most especially after the 1980s when conservatives rolled back the Glass/Steagal Act, FDIC Insurance policies, and SCC Regulations–policies that shepherded the development of a middle class. This is not privilege, but after reading Goffman, one cannot deny the material existence of something others might mistakenly label as privilege, despite that it lacks institutional sanction.

The competition for attention on gendered grounds is what drives this ongoing battle between elite Black folk (elite in terms of education more so than wealth). But why? Put simply, the academy rewards Black scholars for pathologizing Black males as contemporary boogie men along extremely stereotypical grounds. If you provide White conservatives and liberals with a Black face to confirm Black male demonology, your career as an academic will thrive–at least far more than if you take up the banner of challenging the conventional wisdom that Black males are sexist patriarchs that hate Black females. The career advancement doesn’t often take the form of direct pay per se, but access to resources such as grants, research funds, tenure, or upper-level administrative opportunities.

In order for arguments such as Black male privilege to thrive, they have to be based on a fabricated notion of Black males’ lives that defies what the empirical data reveals. One of the reasons Black Male privilege has gained such momentum is that it’s proffered by Black feminism, and right now amongst Black academics there is no other approach to gender with as much unanimous support. Yet there are reasons for this beyond the central arguments posed by Black Feminists. In fact, the shared sociological experience of many African American women helps buoy the seeming “rightness” of Black feminist intersectionality theory and its appeal to Black women. So the rightness of intersectionality theory is not necessarily based on the merits of Black feminist argumentation alone, but also the predominant numbers of Black females who share a demographic and sociological experience in a given space, such as the field of Education (mostly comprised of women, and thus Black women in a predominantly Black space), or graduate school, where courses on gender are mostly taught by women…to women…for women. For those who question Black Feminism, particularly Black males who do so, there are few alternative, yet acceptable theoretical spaces for which to reside when regarding Black gender. Few Black male academics will even publicly challenge these dynamics, because most are outnumbered and fear reprisals damaging to their careers, while others have already been acculturated to Black female learning styles (especially if raised by single mothers).

As I’ve argued in my piece on racial sexism, the types of males that generally go to college in the first place are already adapted to acceptable forms of female-approved behavior, as most have been educated in contexts primarily shaped by women:

“[Teachers] also tend to privilege styles of learning that reflect how girls are socialized: be quite, work quietly in groups, raise your hand before speaking, be nice, no touching, sit still, etc. Children who can code-switch [i.e. Black males deemed “teachable”] and acculturate themselves to this style of learning are lauded as intelligent and tend to move up well. Boys [who can’t code-switch] on the other hand are notorious for tactile learning styles (as evidenced in contact sports and military environments): work with your hands, be energetic, touch things, interact, move, make noise, compete, work in groups that compete, etc. Such styles are more consistent with how boys learn early to sacrifice for others, protect, and provide.” – Dr. T. Hasan Johnson, July 20, 2015.

It is interesting that boys’ learning styles are associated with low intelligence, but in previous eras these boys would have been trained as civic protectors, athletes, or soldiers. They weren’t deemed diseased, psychology afflicted (i.e. Attention Deficit Disorder), or disabled. Rather, their energy was valued and put to use. However, no longer in a context where a rival civilization might take your resources, such energy has little immediate efficacy and is thus considered a problem. However, Dr. Tommy Curry explains the judgement against males in Black female led-spaces more thoroughly and on a broader scale when he states,

“Black men still are the largest victims of poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and death in this country. We’re outnumbered in the university by over 20,000 to our female counterparts. Black women get 60-70% of all the degrees. This has been happening for [over sixty] years. Since 1954, Black women have been getting more degrees than Black men. Now that doesn’t mean that we should somehow malign Black women because they’re succeeding academically, but it means that it creates a demographic context, so if you have a lot of black women who’re moving into the academy that’s in the university, then certain types of theories are going to appeal to them. So that’s why you have this kind of hegemonic force of black feminism. It has a sociological explanation. You outnumber black men, you’ve been trained this way from undergrad, you have a certain class advantage that Black men don’t have…so maybe black men are still first generation (especially if we’re talking black men from the South). So there’s going to be very different class biases that these upper class women by and large are going to have of lower class black men. All this means that these are ripe areas of study for us to understand gender and sex relations and sex roles in the black community better, but right now all of that is shut down.” (Tommy Curry on Dr. Vibe on June 2, 2015).

To many Black women, educational (and thus class) advancement opportunities are a measure of their hard work and talent, while to many Black men, their lack of access and hyper-incarceration isn’t a mark of Black male incapability per se, but rather their own unique decades-long institutional underdevelopment. So, too, is White society’s reluctant granting of Black female access to the middle-class viewed by many Black men as a mark of both: 1) Black female talent and drive and 2) social allowance. Yet this sociologically-reinforced perspective of many lower-to-working-class Black males is dismissed as sexist, while elite Black feminists narratives that malign Black males are considered gospel, or rather, Black gendered truth. But if we understood the relevance of Dr. Curry’s point, we might conclude that both perspectives are rooted in the lived experiences of Black community life and deserve study (albeit an unlikely prospect as long as the only acceptable Black gender discourse rests on assumptions of Black male demonology and Black female upliftment).


AN EXERCISE

Let’s try an anecdotal exercise designed to highlight some of the differences between Black men and women in regard to the impact of increased access to higher education, reduced incarceration, and more consistent employment. The questions below pertain to three primary areas: travel, property ownership, and attitudes about social participation.

When you think of the young (20-40 in age) African Americans you know, how many have geographic mobility? In other words, how many travel internationally for leisure? How many have incorporated obscure foods into their diets (I swear if another sister tries to get me to eat brie, baby bok choy, quinoa, or hummus…), new types of liquor, and even new hobbies inspired by traveling to far away locals? To what extent do you see this with Black males versus females? (Scanning Facebook and Instagram, I’m always amazed at how many pictures of sisters I see standing on beaches in Europe or Asia with not a brother in sight). Which seem to have more opportunities for this? Where are the scores of Black men with lifestyle parity?

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What about real estate ownership? To what extent have you met African American males that own property at younger ages (20-30 years old)? What about those with jobs that allow them the mobility to move to nicer neighborhoods? Live in nicer apartments and condos? What about the confidence such opportunities engender, where people feel they have the means to make their dreams a reality…or rather, seem to feel entitled to such new possibilities? Although these issues are as much about class as they are about race and gender, that’s the crux of the question: who has more access to middle-class experiences regarding travel, property ownership, and entitlement? Why? What say you?

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2 thoughts on ““Black Male Privilege in One Hand and Bull$#! in the Other, Which One Fills Up First?: Challenging the Myth of Black Male Privilege” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. Pingback: “The Ballot or the Bullet” or “Defining the Scope of Black Male Participation and Hyper-Vulnerability in the New Radical Activism” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D. | Black Masculinism and New Black Masculinities

  2. Pingback: “The Ballot or the Bullet: Defining the Scope of Black Male Participation and Hyper-Vulnerability in the New Radical Activism” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D. | Black Masculinism and New Black Masculinities

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