“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.

“The early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” – Jeremy Paxman

Today’s wave of radical activism was ultimately inspired by anti-Black male racism and Black male youth death, namely, Trayvon Martin, but the reality that brash confrontations with law enforcement could further expose already-vulnerable Black males further is not centered in the movement, and I find it concerning to say the least. And no, I don’t believe that Black women somehow aren’t risking their lives and their family’s welfare by standing up in pronounced numbers, but I do think our risk differs—and the data bears that out. Whether we say it or not, approximately 20 or so Black females are killed by police every year, and about an average of 300 Black males. According to The Guardian’s ongoing police murder database, 10 Black women and 201 Black males have been killed to date as of September 19, 2015 (the five women killed in custody have often been labeled as suicides, and it stands to reason that until the causes of their deaths are designated to be the murders we suspect they are, The Guardian will likely not count them). No doubt there are even more who haven’t made this list, but the numbers are consistent with annual data on Black deaths at police hands.

In the last year, I’ve heard critiques that too few know the names of Black women that are killed by cops, and the underlying subtext is that Black men don’t care and are the cause of Black-female-death-obliviousness. But in truth, the ratio of people’s awareness of Black-deaths-to-the-victim’s-gender holds steady. In other words, if you’re only aware of five or so names of Black males killed by cops in recent years and no Black female names, considering the number of males-to-females killed, the reality makes it somewhat even. Even simpler put, Black female deaths at the hands of cops is not really a central issue affecting Black females in large numbers… It would be like saying that we should center Black males in conversations about single-parenting or breast cancer in the Black community, but those issues are just not central to Black male life according to the data. To be clear, I am not arguing that we should not care. Were my mother, sister, or wife hurt or killed by police officers, I’d be devastated, but that still does not mean that such deaths are a large-scale issue for them. Instead, I argue that the #SayHerName Twitter-led movement is a political gesture, and ignores about 295 Black male deaths per year, as even more people are oblivious to their names as anyone else’s. And despite what you think, I don’t enjoy making such comparisons about death…or people’s challenges with injustice. Yet after seeing such shameless attempts to garner recognition and resources at the expense of truths about Black male victimhood, I cannot be silent. As a good friend of mine said concerning the disparity between Black men and women killed by police, “The need to ignore the clear disparities between Black men and Black women so that Black feminists feel they are just as oppressed lessens the life and importance of Black male oppression.” – Dr. Tommy J. Curry, FB Messenger, 9/17/15.

I grew up watching recordings of protests where Black males were present, active, and fearless, and I couldn’t wait to join them. However, when the Los Angeles uprisings took place in 1992, I was stunned at how any acquaintances of mine simply vanished (assumedly arrested), and after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the protests with cops ramped up in intensity. But now, at 39 and being a single-father, I started to think about what my desires in protest now meant for my son. If I got arrested, what would happen to him? And I wasn’t even in the position of a lot brothers with warrants, previous jail/prison experience, paroles, and vulnerable families that depend on them.

One might ask, don’t Black women have the same risks? Don’t they stand out to law enforcement in the same way? I’ll discuss that more below, but consider this: in protests where Black males appeared in equal numbers as Black females such as Ferguson and Baltimore, was there a difference in their treatment? In situations such as those in Ferguson and Baltimore, I saw cops in riot gear carrying semi-automatic weapons, tear gas, and “urban tanks.” I’ve rarely seen that in protests with predominantly Black female populations. They are, in some respects, the privileged poor, or what I would regard as having residual benefits (see my piece on Black male privilege for more detail, but “residual” refers to that which remains after the subtraction of various quantities; in this case referring to all elements removed that are the same between Black men and women except for that which remains–gender). Such benefits may suit them in the context of protests. In fact, at one of the protests I attended (mostly Black women and children), the police detoured traffic so that the march could flow uninterrupted! Although a bit dismayed that they seemed to know the route of the march, I was more amazed that they were not attempting to arrest protesters en masse. In fact, aside from a few outlying situations, such as Dajerria Becton of McKinney, Texas, or Marlene Pinnock of Los Angeles beaten on the side of the freeway, I experienced more beatings and harsh treatment by police officers by age fifteen for simply standing in line to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) than many of the professional activists I’ve seen attacked on video by cops at protests. With an upbringing such as that, how would I interpret such protest in the Age of Mass Incarceration? More so, is it a racially-sexist gesture to assume the hyper-vulnerability of Black male bodies and participation and not think about their heightened susceptibility to adverse treatment by police?

Low Black Male Protest Participation?



Some believe that Black males’ limited participation in today’s activism is somehow a reflection of Black male weakness. Despite such racially-sexist drivel, Black men do participate in today’s radical protest movements generically called “Black Lives Matter,” but not in the numbers one might expect. The formal organization itself is mostly comprised of Black women young and old, gay and transsexual Black men, and some senior-aged pastors. Many Black men have not been involved—working or middle-class. Even in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s murder, there seemed to be difference along gender and class lines. Hence, among the males, we saw Black pastors “leading” marches (to the extent that we can use the word “leading” in a leaderless movement), activists giving street speeches, prominent Hip-Hop artists such as J. Cole speaking out over Twitter, and gang members accused of agitating police officers during protests. Over time? We saw less of a male presence. Yet it is an inalienable fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is led by Black women…and it is for these women I have a tremendous amount of pride and gratitude, yet still…

People routinely ask why Black men have not participated more forthrightly in today’s radical public activism, whether in conversation, debate, or as I’ve witnessed online in articles by Black feminists identifying the motivations of said Black men, and praising Black women’s resolve in the face of extreme injustice. Black men are characterized as weak, ignorant, incapable of handling Black female leadership, or unable to deal with Black female organizational leadership styles (despite that many are raised by Black women and are quite used to taking direction from Black women). The sentiment is that the time has come for Black women to take their place in the sun. I won’t argue against these reasons in this piece, as there is some merit to some elements of the list of Black male failures (although likely not where you’d think), but there are also some concrete reasons behind Black men’s cautious participation in today’s activism, or rather, the harried participation in some contexts and the vacuous absence in others. In essence, as stated by my good colleague Dr. Ronald Neal, “Activism is a middle-class game. The majority of Black men are not middle, [and] they haven’t seen the rewards of activism.” -Dr. Ronald Neal, FB Messenger, 9/16/15. This essay will give some explanation for this and outline some suggestions for how Black males may find strategic opportunities to participate along lines that suit their conscience.

In fact, after the death of Michael Brown attracted so many to Ferguson, I saw many Black males involved. Many were activists and pastors from other places, but there were others, including Black “gang members” ready to go toe-to-toe with the police. However, they were eventually drowned out by visiting Black women who were overwhelmingly better educated and better organizers. In this way, Ferguson in 2014 became much like when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) invited an influx of better educated whites to join the organization in the 1960s in an effort to stem violence from the police and to attract media coverage of their protests. The young White activists were better organizers and planners too, and looked down on the aggressive nature of Black political dissent within SNCC (and resented taking orders from young Black activists). Similarly, the mostly Black middle-class, college educated women in Ferguson saw this Black male proletariat as impassioned but misled in their desire for violence (they also resented taking leadership from men, having viewed the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements as patriarchal). Yet Akinyele Omowale’s “We Will Shoot Back: The Natchez Model and Paramilitary Organization in the Mississippi Freedom Movement” (2002) showed us that violence—even during the Civil Rights Movement—played a valuable role and served as a check against White conservatism and its rejection of peaceful Black protest. In other words, the threat of Black violence said, “if you don’t accept the non-violent grassroots protest of this mostly Black women-led movement, you’ll have to deal with the violence from this mostly ex-soldier, Black male-led underground movement.”

Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver explains why Black males do not join Black Lives Matter better than anyone in the interview below while describing the differences between Black Lives Matter and the Black Panther Party (scroll to the 6 min mark). She argues that the reason that the BPP appealed/s to men is based off of a gendered historical set of models. The BPP, created by two men (one a veteran and another a law student) was based off of the “warrior”-based, militaristic philosophies of Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh, whereas BLM, started by three Black women activists, is based off of the “activist”-based, group-consensus leadership model philosophies of Ella Baker of SNCC. In this way, they each appealed to models that tailored to either Black males or Black females. (Note: toward the end, she reiterates Cecil Brown’s argument that educational institutions have “displaced” African Americans with African students because they want Blacks (diversity) who’re “more educated” and “less troublesome.” This can speak to the gulf between Black academics and Black  activists on the streets…)

Black women are represented in white collar jobs at 64%, blue collar jobs at 8%, and service jobs at 28% (in the labor force at 71%) and have greater employment participation, as Black men are in white collar jobs at 42%, in blue collar jobs at 36%, and service jobs at 23% (Black women also have a 5% higher BA degree attainment than Black men, suggesting future earnings will be higher—Source: Census Burea-2013 American Community Survey). In fact, “…a larger percentage of Black males…were unemployed than for ‘all men’ [in America] (11.2% compared to 7.3%) and were living below the poverty level (26%) than ‘all men’ (15%).” Shockingly, “…40% had no earnings in 2013.”

This employment difference, in turn, leads to different models of protest than from Black men because there is opportunity for greater participation in society. (This might further explain the philosophical choice differences Kathleen Cleaver pointed out above between BLM and the BPP in regard to low Black male participation in BLM. In other words, a “warrior” model is going to appeal to a population that is more heavily excluded from a sustainable quality of life and stable labor participation, whereas civil disobedience allows for a lesser possibility for alienating the establishment. In essence, protest is a staunch request for attention and reform, while armed resistance is war).

The opening quote of this essay is key to understanding Black male participation. Black women activists are very much so the “early birds,” and were quick to organize in response to notable deaths at the hands of police officers, and although I don’t support the competitive tone of the quote, Black men must be more strategic when engaging in radical activism today. As the quote implies, the first mouse (which I interpret to mean un-strategized Black males) gets killed in the mouse trap of brash protest as a release of rage for social change, the mouse who better strategizes his approach, eats, or rather, may live or stay out of prison to struggle in other ways. How does this apply to activism in 2015 for Black males? Put simply, there are a select few modes of activism realistic for most Black men.

Black Male Hyper-Incarceration

Black women have been on the receiving end of racist treatment ranging from laughing in public, to dying in custody, and part of the reason has been their political activism. Parallel to this practice, Black males have been harassed, imprisoned, or killed for having naked photos of themselves, making direct eye contact, kindly asking for assistance, building a clock radio, working, crossing the street at the crosswalk, looking like a shoplifter, defending themselves from bullies, receiving unsolicited pictures from girls, and many more…

10985399_450592058399168_2442689604161449494_nYet even when the acts they commit have been “illegal,” the police response is usually extreme: such as a father fighting to find healthcare for his daughter’s chemo therapy, stealing $5 dollars, being jailed for a traffic violation then beaten nearly to death without treatment, or not having a gun. In fact, 262,000 Black males have been killed since the 1980s and few know it, let alone have been willing to do anything about it. That number is 4.5 times the number of those killed in the Vietnam War. Put differently, Black males are 5% of the population, but 40% of unarmed people shot by police. Furthermore, Black men are incarcerated at a rate three times that of ALL men in America—-which is dramatically higher than women altogether.

Alongside incarceration, 95% of prisoners–around 2 million (mostly Black men statistically-speaking) have never even received a trial. Many are pressured to plead guilty and serve time in an effort to not serve even more time. Overall, for many poor people of color, the process goes as follows: “If you are poor, you will be railroaded in an assembly-line production, from a town or city where there are no jobs, through the police stations, county jails and courts directly into prison. And if you are poor, because you don’t have any money for adequate legal defense, you will serve sentences that are decades longer than those for equivalent crimes anywhere else in the industrialized world … Being poor has become a crime. And this makes mass incarceration the most pressing civil rights issue of our era.”

Implicit Bias

Alongside explicit acts of racism, there are implicit, or unconscious, acts of dehumanization that need be accounted for when thinking about how Black males are perceived by law enforcement, public defenders, and judges.

“Almost no attention has been paid to the effects that unconscious, i.e., implicit, biases may have on [public defenders and police] decision making. This is surprising because over three decades of well-established social science research demonstrates that these biases are ubiquitous and can influence judgments, especially when information deficits exist. Worse, these biases are likely to be particularly influential in circumstances where time is limited, individuals are cognitively taxed, and decision making is highly discretionary—exactly the context in which [public defenders and cops] find themselves.” –see L. Song Richardson & Phillip Atiba Goff, “Implicit Racial Bias in Public Defender Triage” in The Yale Law Journal (#122 Yale L.J. 2626, 2013), p. 2628.

These types of judgments and attitudes are deeply embedded and widely based in society, and particularly for police officers, rooted in a belief that African American males are animalistically violent. This can even be seen in popular culture. I’m writing part of this essay sitting in the theater watching The Perfect Guy [spoiler alert]. The film accomplishes at least three things in relation to implicit bias: 1) it highlights the need for increased protections for women against abusers, while 2), simultaneously affirming the notion that only Black women in Black communities suffer from abuse (bi-directionality, or, data suggesting that Black men and women mutually abuse one another at nigh-similar rates, apparently goes unnoticed). Lastly, it humanizes Black women by distancing them from hyper-violent Black males…a myth revered as a truth in mainstream society. Sanaa Lathan’s (sigh) character’s relationship with the White male cop seems to even highlight the safety of White masculinity in the face of Black male demonology.

perfect guyFor most of my life, from The Color Purple to The Perfect Guy, “Mister” (the abusive monster played by Danny Glover in The Color Purple) is still alive and used in popular media to reinforce the idea of Black male treachery. [Interesting side-note, a woman leaving the theater looked at me and said to her friend, “I need to buy a gun” within earshot, emphasizing one of the main points of the film, but doing so, apparently, with me in mind]. Such media caters to the growing Black female (and mainstream female) middle-class market and set of social interests; and the demonstration of middle-class acceptability in these films (a la Tyler Perry and many more) affirms Black male demonology. The major shift with this film, however, is that now, middle-class, educated, accomplished, Black men are now on par with their poor Black male counterparts. Now, class and accomplishment cannot absolve Black men of their inherent evil. As stated by blogger Wesley Morris,

No Good Deed, which came out almost the same weekend a year ago, managed that feat, too. And Straight Outta Compton led the box office for three straight weekends last month. Setting aside that they’re all movies about (or courtesy of) Black men who threaten Black women…” –see Wesley Morris.

These films hardly create racial bias, but reflect what is prevalent in society’s thinking. Phillip Atiba Goff explains the relationships between such implicit beliefs in more detail,

“Contemporary approaches to racial prejudice suggest that these more egregious forms of racial bias have been relegated to the past. It is commonly thought that old-fashioned prejudice has given way to a modern bias that is implicit, subtle, and often unintended. This new understanding of racial bias may have led researchers and laypeople alike to believe that the dehumanization and subjugation of Blacks was primarily a historical phenomenon. However, as recently as the early 1990s, California state police euphemistically referred to cases involving young Black men as N.H.I.—No Humans Involved (Wynter, 1992). One of the officers who participated in the Rodney King beating of 1991 had just come from another incident in which he referred to a domestic dispute involving a Black couple as “something right out of Gorillas in the Mist” (Kennedy, 1998). Assuming that these incidents are not confined to police officers, is it possible that, at the same time that contemporary racial bias has become more subtle, these extreme forms of dehumanization nonetheless remain?”

–see Phillip Atiba Goff, Matthew Christian Jackson, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Melissa J. Williams, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences” in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 2), p. 292.

In another study, Goff outlines how such attitudes also shape how public defenders and other judicial officials employ implicit bias,

“Second, [implicit bias] can negatively influence attorneys’ behaviors. In one study, when interacting with negatively stereotyped individuals, people tended to maintain a greater physical distance, make more speech errors, and end the contact earlier than with positively stereotyped individuals. Furthermore, unconscious stereotypes can cause people to act in accordance with them. For instance, research subjects who were subliminally primed with a Black male face reacted with more hostility to bad news than those primed with White faces. This occurred, the researchers concluded, because subliminally priming participants with Black male faces unconsciously activated the stereotype of Black hostility, which then influenced the participants’ behaviors. These behavioral effects of IB are problematic because individuals on the receiving end of negative behaviors may respond in kind. However, because the originators of the behavior are unaware of their own role in triggering the unpleasant response, they may attribute the negative behavior solely to the other. This “behavioral confirmation” effect explains how [implicit biases] can adversely influence interactions.”
–see L. Song Richardson & Phillip Atiba Goff, “Implicit Racial Bias in Public Defender Triage” in The Yale Law Journal (122 Yale L.J. 2626, 2013), p. 2637.

Yet it is important to also understand the ongoing tensions between Black communities and policing. To do so, one must understand the history of policing and its political purpose. After Emancipation, the central purpose of those whom would one day be deemed “police officers” was to capture (arrest) ex-enslaved Africans on trumped up charges in an effort to reclaim formerly free labor, an enterprise the South’s economy wholly depended upon (and the North undermined in an effort to shift the power balance of the emerging industrial economy into its favor). Since the 1970s, the reclaiming of labor has been precisely what both private prisons and policing has been preoccupied.

Activism Then vs. Now

It is difficult to not get nostalgic when thinking about past eras of political mobilization, whether during the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. But there have been some key changes since the 1970s that impact Black male behavior in regard to audacious political activism. Access to jobs and hyper-incarceration alone are enough to deter many Black males from participating in their rights as citizens to commit acts of legal, civil disobedience, but carceral ideologies and practices add to this as well. Whether carceral practices in relation (or response) to policing, socializing, or practicing citizens’ rights; innocent, everyday activities can further lead to Black male incarceration. Put simply, here are some of the reasons Black males are not out in force:


First, the post-industrialization era has meant that the jobs that Black males had the greatest access to have been gone since the 1970s. This means that employment has been shaky at best, and studies show that even formerly incarcerated White men have a better chance at a job over a Black male with no criminal records. The extraction of industrial jobs from urban centers has meant that Black males’ unemployment rates have stayed high. When coupled with the intrusion of the illegal drug enterprise into Black communities, the War on Drugs and the high rates of incarceration cannot be stressed enough when looking at Black men’s social lives. Such incarceration means, in this context, an absence of Black male bodies present during past eras, as approximately 950,000 Black male bodies have been removed from daily life.

statsEx-Cons and State-Blackmailing Against Civil Disobedience

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of Black male ex-cons is higher than other groups. Put succinctly,

These sharp increases in incarceration rates have left in their wake a large and growing population of former inmates, also unevenly distributed by race and ethnicity. About 3 percent of White males and 8 percent of Hispanic males, but 20 percent of all Black adult males, have served prison time at some point in their lives. One study has estimated that among Black men born between 1965 and 1969, 20.5 percent have been to prison. Among Black men without a high school diploma, that figure rose to 58.9 percent.”
–see T. Bonczar, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974–2001,” Special Report NCJ 197976, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, D.C., 2003 and B. Pettit and B. Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69 (2004): 151–69 in Steven Raphael, “The Employment Prospects Of Ex-Offenders” in Focus (Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall-Winter 2007–08), p. 21.

This means that Black males arrested at protests are far more likely to go to jail or prison than men from other racial groups. This also means that past prison sentences become a serious deterrent from protest exercises.

Drug War & Hyper-Incarceration Age

incarc-rate-by-race-gender-webAs many Black males in urban centers suffer from severe unemployment and lack of education, their participation in the drug industry is high. As Black males tend to stand out easily in political rallies and protest demonstrations, if they come from these social contexts, the likelihood that they may be investigated and harassed at demonstrations could further contribute to their hyper-incarceration. Although it’s popular to assume that poor, uneducated Black men have no political awareness, the reality is that for many, performances of civil disobedience can be a ticket to prison—or at least unwelcome attention. Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in An American City (2014) highlights the many ways in which Black male bodies are hyper-policed, ranging from visiting hospitals with pregnant girlfriends, to going to hospitals for their own injuries, to calling the police for crimes against them, to even calling in tips against other criminals! In essence, basic use of their civil rights can result in their re-incarceration.

Traffic Violations & Warrants

Minor, non-violent offenses can still be a major deterrent for Black males interested in political protest. As one brother told me months ago when I asked him why he didn’t participate in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Fresno, “I can’t, I got warrants.” Although the way in which he said it was funny, he was deadly serious. What might be considered even funnier was that it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I, too, had a warrant. Unable to pay a speeding ticket (I owed $500), it resulted in the issuing of a warrant and the suspension of my driver’s license. Any light survey of my name by a police officer would’ve meant my arrest. Warrants are basically arrestable offenses.

As to how impactful the racialization of traffic policing is on a wider scale,

“The national statistics mask greater disparities in some locales. In one New Jersey study, racial minorities made up 15% of drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike, yet 42% of stops and 73% of arrests made by police were of Black drivers—even though White drivers and racial minorities violated traffic laws at almost identical rates. Other data from New Jersey showed that Whites were less likely to be viewed as suspicious by police—even though stopped White drivers were twice as likely to be carrying illegal drugs as stopped Black drivers and five times as likely to be carrying contraband as stopped Hispanic drivers. In Volusia County, Florida, 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops by state troopers showed that only five percent of drivers on the roads were racial minorities but minorities constituted more than eighty percent of the people stopped and searched by police. The police practice of targeting minority drivers has become so widespread that many Black communities have begun referring to the phenomenon as “DWB” or “driving while Black.” –see “Race and The Criminal Justice System In The United States” in The Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, August 2013.

This is not limited to New Jersey and Florida by any means. A recent article entitled, “African-American Drivers Hit with Nearly 3X More Traffic Violations, Incur More Fines Than Whites in California” exposed how California plays into this scenario as well. It states, “In California, a Black driver has more costs for infractions like driving with a suspended license than white motorists. …Fines and fees for traffic citations have steadily increased over the last decade, and that disproportionately affects Black drivers, especially those who live in poor communities. Violations of $100 now cost close to $500 and increase to $800 for drivers who miss court dates. Oakland, California is home to 27 percent of African-Americans and 26 percent of whites. Yet Oakland Police Department data from April 2013 to Oct. 2014 shows more than 15,000 traffic violations have been attributed to Black drivers while white residents only account for more than 4,000.” In such manner, when politically active, such former trivialities can now mean losing access to one’s vital transortation on the light end, and imprisonment on the other.

Alongside the hyper-policing of traffic, many cities further engage in such racist behavior in an effort to raise capital (see “How Municipalities In St. Louis County, Mo., Profit From Poverty“)This means that yet again, daily, basic things can be arrestable issues for Black males.

Black Lives Matter?

As stated earlier, I attended a demonstration some months ago where around 200 mostly Black female activists shut down an intersection over the death of a young Black male at the hands of the police. I asked 10 Black male friends and associates (ranging from long-time friends to blue collar Black males I ran into at random moments) what they thought about the idea of 200 Black males committing the same act, they each responded in a very similar manner–suggesting that the police would’ve come with guns drawn. Whether or not this is true is not the point here, but that their participation would be interpreted differently is enough to keep many Black males at bay.

Black Families and the Transference of Incarcerated Suffering

Another reason why some Black men avoid outright civil disobedience is the cost their (re)incarceration has on their families. A recent report outlines this in detail:

“…examines the ways in which families are impacted by a loved one’s entanglement in the criminal justice system. Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families includes surveys of 712 formerly incarcerated people and 368 family members, 27 employers and 34 focus groups with family members and others affected by incarceration.

The research found that many of the costs and penalties related to imprisonment extend far beyond an individual’s prison sentence, impacting their families and communities even after the person is released.

Who Pays? found that the long-term costs to families amount to more than legal expenses, and phone and visitation costs, and include care for untreated physical ailments, mental health support, the loss of children placed into the foster care system, lost job and educational opportunities for those who are imprisoned, and permanent loss of income. These costs—fines and fees alone can average $13,607 for those who earn less than $15,000 a year–often drown a family in debt. Additionally, 67 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals were still unemployed or underemployed five years after being released from prison.

An alarming 65 percent of families were unable to meet the basic needs of their family, while nearly half struggled with basic food and housing needs. Sadly, 34 percent of families were driven into debt simply through the costs of maintaining contact with a loved one, including phone calls and visitation.

Moreover, women bear the brunt of the financial burden, accounting for 83 percent of family members [Black women] responsible for court-related costs associated with the conviction of a loved one.

Incarceration perpetuates a cycle of poverty, the study found, as nearly 40 percent of all crimes are related to poverty, and nearly all incarcerated people (80 percent) are low income.”

To be clear, Black men are not cowards. They must, however, be strategic about engaging in such a public manner, and going back to jail arbitrarily can have an adverse effect on the very families these men seek to support through protest.

Voting and Civic Participation

Generally Black male political participation is low, so police violence and hyper-arrest are generally not centered by the movement even though they are its primary victims. The same can be said for voting. Instead, Black men tend to work through local organizations such as churches, the NAACP, and non-profit organizations via policy, not avid protest. Essentially, many Black males have lost faith in many types of civic participation, from voting to protest engagements, yet another deterrent from protest participation. We find that Black men participate at lower rates than Black women when it comes to voting as well. As access to voting is often tied to incarceration (meaning current prisoners and ex-cons often cannot vote), then, voting has become a form of democratic violence against Black males. In other words, not having access to voting, many Black males are subject to the outcomes of elections (i.e. new policies) despite their wishes.

2011-latino-origin-06Black Male Options for Protest

John Henrik Clarke once talked about his thoughts on non-violent protest, and argued that many African Americans do not differentiate between a strategy and way of life (philosophy). He argued that civil rights activists mistook the two and were not flexible enough to adapt their approach when other methods might have served them more effectively. Black males may need to entertain purposefully strategic forms of activism that complement their unique situation.

So what is the point of all this, you might ask? What am I ultimately saying? It’s simple. I’m not saying Black men should not participate in Black middle-class women’s movements, or that they should avoid confrontation with the very institutions that have historically underdeveloped them specifically (i.e. law enforcement), but rather that they be mindful of the unique particularity of their institutional oppression and how it can be similar yet different from Black women’s. They should also be clear about the stakes of different types of activism, recognizing how their hyper-vulnerability to certain types of activism can make them casualties to supporting their families to an even greater degree than they already are.

(I myself have initiated and conducted protests against authority figures, presidents, and police both by myself and with groups big and small—and will continue to do so—but merely urge Black males to consider the nature of their hyper-sacrifice to their physical, familial, and “employment” well-being because most will be told that their sacrifice should bear no different reflection. It will argued that we all suffer the same, despite that it’s statistically not true. More so, as Black women and LGBTs are centered in today’s movements, the movement is not made with cis-gendered, hetero, black males in mind except to the extent that their deaths spawn furied activism and Black women’s newly articulated-political capital. And thus Black men must weigh their strategies delicately, as it is apparently clear that even mentioning the need to do so is regarded with contempt. So if no one else will, we must at least ask such questions ourselves.)

Organization-Based Public Activism

Events such as the “300 Black Men March” perfectly represent an acceptable form of non-confrontational protest that diminishes threats of hyper-arrests and police violence. Simply marching to bring attention the injustices experienced by Black communities, it’s clear this method was highly strategized as to tone and feel. They did not posture themselves to confront police, and yet still took action. This type of activism is useful for attracting attention and demonstrating Black male participation.

safe_image.phpAnother would be the Hartford, Connecticut Black male group that sought to motivate kids on their first day of school.

“On August 25, a group of black men organized by Pastor AJ Johnson and Attorney DeVaughn Ward dressed for work and anxiously awaited the arrival of students at Martin Luther King Elementary School on their first day.

Among the men present were lawyers, judges, CEOs, dentists and doctors; a sea of suits, with a few men in scrubs and police uniforms.”

Albeit not a radical act (or maybe it is), such forms of public support are activist-based, and offer a method for action that Black men can take with relatively little worry for their hyper-vulnerability to State apparatuses.

hc-hartford-first-day-school-0826-20150825Organizational and Media Activism

Albeit not exempt from COINTELPRO-esque surveillance (COINTELPRO=Counter Intelligence activities based on the FBI’s program for the harassment of activists in the 1970s), media activism has become a popular space for Black male activism. Whether talking about the media-based political activism of Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Louis Farrakhan, Tavis Smiley, Roland Martin, or even D.L. Hughley, or the YouTube sensationalism of Umar Johnson, King Noble, or Brother Polight, individual or organization-based media activism has become a strategically useful mode of public activism that attracts attention, reaches a widespread audience, and ensures little direct police brutality.

Publicized Armed Warfare (i.e. “The New Black Panther Party”)

A small percentage of Black men have engaged in direct-opposition activism, or activism that advocates armed response to racist violence, including, if necessary, police. This type of activism attempts to honor the historical activism of the Deacons for Defense and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. However, this type of activism, much like Black Lives Matter protests, will not appeal to Black males en masse because the threat of reprisal is too stark, and has an adverse impact on them and their families if they are beaten, incarcerated, or killed—which is far more likely if brandishing weapons on public streets.


*July 18, 2016 Addendum:

In the last month, two Black men (Gavin Long and Micah Johnson) are allegedly responsible for killing police officers in response to the scores of killed Black folk by police (and average of 300 Black males/12-20 Black females per year). These brothers were not members of any major Black organization, yet as ex-military soldiers they each took issue with Black Lives Matter’s protest method and sought armed warfare instead. Although clearly not accepted on a widespread basis in the Black community, some felt that their actions were either warranted, inevitable, or at least reminiscent of the Deacons for Defense model that served as an unspoken consequence to White society if protestors (and by extension reasonable dialogue) are ignored. Nevertheless, whether publicly lauded or not, this form of protest has a long, unspoken history in the Black community. Even Malcolm has talked about armed warfare as an “invisible movement” that is an inevitable consequence of racist White violence.

Covert Strategy & “The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Believe it or not, I am a radical…a revolutionary in fact, albeit a strategic one. As a Black male, a professor, and a child of a Black Panther, I know about the impact of certain types of activism—especially for Black men—that people do not want to talk about…the repercussions of what happened to many of the Black Panthers after the cameras stopped rolling. Panther activists were incarcerated without due process, exiled, threatened, blackmailed, and killed outright. It is for this reason that some Black men engage in more hidden forms of activism that protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their identities secret, yet allowing them a range of protest activities that are both within and outside of conventional forms of engagement. Not limited to acceptability politics, covert organizational responses might be the best way Black men can offer support to the more overt work of groups such as Black Lives Matter. Whether working in purposeful collaboration or paralleling them tangentially, Black male activists likely find this avenue better suited to their predicament, with the least amount of impact against direct reprisal.

8 thoughts on ““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.

  1. I found your article to be extremely illuminating and troubling at the same time. I applaud you for the depth of your research in articulating, what I deem, the “Marginalization of Black Male Humanity.” My visceral response to the rate-of-death statistics alone gave me a few quiet moments of reflections before proceeding on with the rest of your paper. There is nothing that you have written that does not bear witness to truth but troubling concern I have is the absence of a “true” intra-cultural conversation, which could, potentially, aid in ameliorating the effects of such social trauma. I would posit that your piece is, in many ways, an extension of works by scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Joy DeGruy Leary but spoken in a tone and voice not often heard, or listened to, enough.

    Aptly titling your article “The Ballot or The Bullet” succinctly places it within an historical context/continuum first challenged by Frederick Douglass and then later Malcolm X. I appreciate that. While I deplore the use of comparative statistical analysis when it comes to human misery and suffering, I completely understand its need in the context of your writings/research.

    If the sheer presence of the numbers you’ve presented do not shake the leaves of the tree enough for us to open a dialogue that declares, “The leaves are truly falling,” then our issues as a society run deeper than the systemic racism that exists as the open, gaping bleeding wound of our nation’s social/political/economic infrastructure.

  2. Brother, this article impacted me in new ways. Personally, I never thought deeply on reasons why Black Men were more cautious to protest and be seen as active members of movements such as Black Lives Matter. Subconsciously, I had an idea as a Black Man, because I know how we are viewed through the lens of society. But the way you put this piece together was brilliant and enlightening. Everything was put into perspective, so much so that it bothers me when I reflect on how some strands of Black Feminist would only scratch the surface of this topic when slandering Black Men for our “lack of support”. With your work, I’m able to have a clear understanding as a BlackMan, while being able to see how complex and deeply rooted this issue is in society and the Black community. Thank you, brother! P.S. These articles and post would be amazing in book form.

  3. Great post. One thing I think black feminists in academia leave out of the discussion is how much of their commentary on black men is based on historical patterns of one group dominating the other. By that I mean, since the beginning of history, when one society took over another, they killed the men (or made them obsolete) and had the women do their bidding, many times by force, but not all the time (as is the case with these types). Another aspect of this conversation is hypergamy, i.e. the females of any species wanting to be apart of the harem of the men who are top-notch or considered alpha, relative to her station in society and age bracket. Black men don’t dominate anyone as a group, not even in South Africa where whites have most of the wealth. Bullying? Yes some black men do it, but that is not equal to complete domination.

    What does this have to do with these types of women dominating the conversation? Well, there position in society puts them above a large number of black PEOPLE (not just men) and limits their options for black men. They like to ignore this fact as well as ignore all the black women from all walks of life that disagree with their assertions. Include the fact that white and nonblack men have been promoted as the bastions of traditional masculinity (which black feminists still respect and admire {i.e. Scandal, etc}), despite claims otherwise) via the media since Americas birth and its no wonder these types will feign resistance to the establishment (via talking about “white privilege, instead of power, which creates privilege; via always demanding inclusion of white spaces {e.g. award shows,etc} instead of bolstering our own) while making outright demands and claims of collective abuse unto black men. For example, the claim that black men have erased black women is false. The black community is matri-focal mostly (go to any hood USA and in most families not in the hood “Big Mama” is most prominent). Media wise, black feminists get published in the huff post, buzzfeed, major academic publication sources,etc. How many writers do you see that have opposing ideas getting the same coverage?

    Mind you, the black upper middle class as a group is guilty of this regardless of gender, I just mentioned black feminists since they are the most vocal.

    Western society likes to use black men as an example of dysfunctional masculinity, not because we are actually dysfunctional, but because we are not dominating on the global stage (yet we are the majority globally). Its akin to wartime propaganda against an enemy. To remove the enemies humanity via propaganda makes it easier to defeat them. What better source of propaganda than the women that look like the men?

    Please correct me if Im wrong. I didn’t study social sciences or the humanities in school, I didn’t like how they promoted popular ideas and downplayed those with less support (i.e. funding). So I studied engineering because they had the answers. I do know this, people don’t make demands on people they feel are dominating them. They make requests or suggestions, or they BEG. Straight Black men get dissed by these types of women because:

    1)Reagonomics and the crack era, we lost a lot of strongholds that traditional manhood is based on (providing,protecting,etc) relative to nonblack men. We lost dominance in the realm of traditional black masculinity which led us to where we are. Despite protestations otherwise (by people who benefit from it indirectly) traditional masculinity still rules the world.

    2) Non-black men are promoted as the standard in society, black men are viewed as playthings or entertainment (until Obama came along, and even then…). These women spend a lot of time around non-black men and need an excuse to act on their desires…..

    There are just as many black female self hating, nonblack loving, folks as their are black males who are the same way. Black males get more coverage (because the women complain, particularly if he is famous). Black males ,like most males, are not able to come up with vast reasons for their self-issues. Its akin to trying to win an argument with a lady who can talk 100 miles a minute. Now give her an ideology and here we are.

    The whole game these women are running is no different than your average self hating brotha. Both types tend to have personality disorder features as well. They try to find any seemingly legitimate reason to crap on other blacks in order to integrate themselves into whiter society.

    Basically, people (straight,gay or otherwise) like this operate on:
    1)desire—->2)create a reason to justify the desire—-> 3) act on desire

    This whole “black men are xyz,blah blah” coming from women like this is just an after-the-fact rationalization to justify and protect their personal choices, if not exercise their demons. Black men are not faultless, not at all. Neither the men nor women live in a vacuum though.


    1. You’ve laid out quite a bit there, “Riddla,”band I appreciate it. I read it when you posted it and wanted to ponder it (but I’ve been swamped). But more than anything, I wanted to thank you for posting such a passionate and thoughtful response.

  4. No problem Dr.

    At its base, these types want to integrate themselves into the power structure. Instead of trying to obtain power with the black men who are down (and their are plenty), they must distance themselves from the losing males while maintaining their exoticism for the winning males as a mate attraction strategy (think “natural hair” girls who date white hipsters…). Some Black men have been doing the same thing, especially if he has money, but we know that already don’t we?

    I personally don’t think we can talk about progressive black masculinity until we re-establish traditional black masculinity. Being progressive is a privilege, traditional roles and moves establish resources for the children to have the privilege of being progressive. Even the white LGBT people didn’t think about getting gay marriage legalized until after the housing crash which re-started gentrification and re-distributed wealth to upper class white Americans.

    This whole thing is a ruse, a cover for their true intentions. It seems like every 5-8 years another wave of “black men are not….” hits the media and now is the chance. These womens talking points often mirror those of white “race realist” and social conservatives. Killing black men dead in the street is easier when you have a group of black women who will cry abuse from “patriarchy” after they use our deaths to gain political steam for LGBT and feminist issues……

    Like for the rabid racist and sophisticated bigot, black men are no good to these women unless we are dead……

  5. In light of recent developments, my cousin hipped me to something going on on twitter. Recently the Blacklivesmatter womenfolk have been featured in Ebony magazine. Many Ferguson residents are not happy and feel their movement has been coopted and diverted to focus on LGBT issues, with Mike Browns death used as currency to gain relevancy. One man (D.Seals) started asking questions of BLM about these matters and was attacked with ad hominems, called “jealous”,etc….then came the statement by one of the women in the magazine that “black men are trash.” Tweets by BLM members have been screenshotted due to them being deleted after they were called out.
    Follow this thread and D.Seals page from earlier this week for some background.

    In other words, what many black men were saying was right all along….

    keep in mind ebony is white owned also……

    so a white owned magazine that caters to blacks is telling working class blacks who their leaders are and the “educated” blacks they are promoting are basking in the attention

  6. Pingback: Dr. T. Hasan Johnson at Texas A&M on Misandrior and Black Male Studies – Black Masculinism and New Black Masculinities

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.