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.