After Trayvon: Everyday Discrimination in the Lives of Young Black Men

The Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, by a suspicious neighbor has been one of the top stories in the headlines for the last two weeks. It won’t always be. In days or weeks, perhaps, the media will have moved on to another story, but the underlying challenges affecting young black men will continue. In that light, it’s worth considering some results from the “African American Men Survey.” The survey was conducted in 2006 and included 400 respondents aged 18-29. The experiences of the respondents resonate today, even though the survey was conducted two years before the election of our first black president and one year before the start of a devastating economic downturn.


The figure above tells an important story. Twenty one percent of respondents had been to prison, but an additional 53 percent had a close family member or friend in prison. Two thirds had a close friend or relative who was murdered. Almost half of all respondents had been arrested at some point. Consistent with other national studies, just over ten percent had an alcohol or drug problem (it’s commonly believed – wrongly – that drug and alcohol addiction is more common among African Americans than among whites).


The majority of respondents reported at least one kind of discrimination. Most common, more than half believed that they have been unfairly stopped by the police, and a substantial proportion said they experienced other forms of discrimination such as poor service in a restaurant, people acting afraid of the person, or people thinking they are not smart. These more subtle forms of everyday discrimination can accumulate and lead to heightened stress and lower self-esteem.


Despite all this, fully 96 percent of young black men say that parents should tell their sons that anyone in America can be successful if they work hard, although more than half (52 percent) believe that black men need to work harder to get credit, and 49 percent believe that the police are looking for any reason to give black men a hard time.

As I have reviewed before with data from the GSS, America has made important strides in reducing racial prejudice in many areas of life. African Americans are better integrated into social life than thirty years ago, but an important barrier to future progress is a system of law enforcement and mass incarceration that is perceived as biased against black men.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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2 Responses to After Trayvon: Everyday Discrimination in the Lives of Young Black Men

  1. Godfred Boahen says:

    Hi Brendan
    I thought that this was a powerful piece which I really enjoyed reading. Here in the UK although a police officer has recently been exposed on tape racially abusing a young black man, the wider debate on racial discrimination has been curiously muted. Incredibly there was no official action taken against the police officer despite the tape until the recording was made public. Even this official cover up has not really sparked a debate about institutional discrimination. There is much to change but people seemed resigned to things staying the same.

    Colleagues may be interested in a conference that I am convening at The Open University on 18 June 2012 titled ‘Living with Social Categories: Mental Health, Learning Disability, and Ethnicity in an Age of Austerity’ which addresses some of these issues.

  2. Thanks Godfred for that interesting comment. It sounds like a very interesting conference. Do you have a website for interested people?

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