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Today no group is more misrepresented in the American conscious than African American males. Their presentation in media is a glamorous image of Grammy Awards and NBA MVP statues. But their reality is one of failure unlike any other subgroup in all of America. Black maleness holds a bastion of unemployed, imprisoned and homeless. Our nation, not only forgot these men, it created their pseudo image as a placeholder for our country’s history. An image that has been painted with a cover of NFL logos and rap stars making millions of dollars. All as an optical illusion to accept our own conscious need to see this failure as personal, and not systemic.
The idea that he didn’t try hard enough, is much easier to accept than the reality that no matter how hard he tried his fate was decided once his race and gender were chosen. Unable to shake the shadow that comes when you force-feed a country a false delusion, these young men are now lashing out, in Ferguson, Baltimore and so many other cities. This is the result when you tell a country with the history of ours, “Everything is okay, as long as we have a singular Floyd Mayweather, or the rising of a President Barack Obama.” All the while failing to create systemic answers to the unresolved problems that were created by hundreds of years of oppression.
African-Americans suffered as chattel slaves for generations. This type of bondage was one where they were treated as property rather than human beings. Unable to marry or form stable familial units, any idea of family developed in an environment of constant fear. As a result, the evolution of black masculinity was deeply affected. The development of an ownership of self and control of one’s own destiny was not only disrupted, it was altered into an altogether different idea of power over one’s future. After slavery, Jim Crow created new constraints. In his piece “Manhood Rights in the Age of Jim Crow,” Professor Martin Summers of Boston University stated:
Given the synonymy between manhood and citizenship, it is not surprising that African American men viewed attempts to marginalize them politically, socially, and economically as assaults on their masculinity. In this period during which the privileges and protections of citizenship were being systematically rolled back – in the South as well as the rest of the nation – the struggle to maintain or regain them was framed as a struggle for “manhood Rights.”
It is this backdrop that framed the existence of black males well into the 1960’s. They lived in a struggle to find self-identity, while being continuously pushed back into a secondary status.
Over the last forty years entertainment via film, music and sports has created an alternative view of black men. With the early ascension of Sidney Poitier and Muhammad Ali, we saw a new kind of black male image take center stage. Strong, informed and outspoken on the social issues of the day, this was an identity of black men America had not seen in such form. These men of great stature spoke to the social ills of the day and stood front line on issues of civil injustice. With their ascension they paved a path for a new crop of blacks in the media.
It is this new veil of economics that has allowed for a broad swath of America to become not just desensitized to black poverty, but also hypnotized by black celebrity. How could we not? Our channels from ESPN to VH1 are filled with presentations of black Americans being paid a king’s ransom to entertain. As black celebrity has been shown to millions of people, millions of times, the story of real lives has also been lost, and with it the engine that thrust forward the demand for social justice by the masses. The heartbeat of social action is to recognize your mistreatment, and demand better. With each presentation of Kobe Bryant’s 25 million dollar a year contract … a veil of false calm is created within the overall American economic psyche about the immense black wealth disparity. Young black men from ghettos across America that used to dream to make great changes in racial inequity now just dream to be a millionaire and be like Mike and dunk a ball or dance on a stage.
Behind this image working class black men pressured themselves to make it in ways not seen prior. Creating alter egos that could be framed in the light of a superhero. Forming fanciful places where they would one day become rappers, or basketball players, instead of everyday fathers or workers at the corner store. All this while even the corner store wasn’t giving them full-time work. To live in such a world of delusion is so very different than the America experienced by everyone else. That world is full of normal teachers, secretaries and every day people. Instead this is a world where our poorest pressure themselves to become millionaires or bust, ignoring the fact that while money multiples it does not appear out of thin air.
While the few playing on the Milwaukee Bucks make millions in the NBA playoffs and are shown across the globe on TNT, Milwaukee as a city sees its rates of unemployed black males between 16 and 54 at rates over 50%. As the Los Angeles Clippers play at Staples Center on ABC, thousands suffer in its shadow on Skid Row only a few blocks away from the Los Angeles arena. (Skid Row has the highest concentration of homeless in the nation. The population of which is predominately homeless black males).
As the number of incarcerated African American men reached levels unseen, the term black man took on a synonymous meaning with the word prisoner. In the piece “The Black Male Incarceration Problem Is Real and It’s Catastrophic,” I showed that there are more African American men behind bars than the number imprisoned by 9 countries that represent over 1.5 billion people. There are only about 18 million black males in total, counting children.
Despite all of this, the imagery of black men on television and media took the from of the rap mogul Luscious Lyon of Empire, or the iconic sports figure LeBron James. Multi-millionaire black males shown so many times that you would think they grew on trees. The irony being numerically in real terms they hardly exist.
But unable to stomach it, America refused to swallow the truth. So it made its own truth, a place where at any given moment you look to the cover of Yahoo and the same few black men in entertainment are shown daily as the top stories. All the while if you Google a common black male name and do an image search, it brings up a string of mug shots of men whose stories don’t make it to that premiere Yahoo news feed unless they are shot down.
This is the conflicted place where African American men exist, from Baltimore to Ferguson and beyond. This economic trap has created a monster of a problem that is bubbling and will burst upon all of our cities if unresolved.
Antonio Moore is a Los Angeles based entertainment attorney with several celebrity clients. He is also producer of the documentary on the Iran Contra & Crack Cocaine Epidemic “Freeway: Crack in the System presented by Al Jazeera”