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Dr. Darron Smith: Black Men, Status Competition and the Threat of Violence

By Dr. Darron Smith

The emergence of American inequality began during the formation of our nation, giving rise to popular notions of our supposedly American democracy. In fact, many colonial elite Americans worked very hard to thwart any real effort toward a nation where the rights of minorities were protected against white majority rule. The brutality of forced African slavery alongside of Native American land theft/genocide and the oppression of women were antithetical to any real founding of a democratic society.

Many elite white Americans were deeply concerned at the thought of a self-appointed government of the people, by the people, and for the people as noted by one early writer, “that people are incapable of ruling themselves, primarily because humans are naturally self-centered and quarrelsome and need the iron fist of a strong leader.” These ideas reveal some deep insight into how many elite white men felt about the prospects of democratic rule made up by common ordinary folk other than white and male colonist, in particular; African slaves, Native populations and women were largely excluded from the process of national building. Coupled with puritanical religious beliefs, as embodied in the time-honored ethic of “hard work,” America has historically evolved into a deeply divided and unequal society, not ruled by common consent, but instead by well-entrenched dynastic oligarchies. These influential white men and their acolytes infused into the nation a discourse of freedom, liberty and justice; thus, establishing a uniquely American vision revolving around a cohesive (white) identity based on preserving and sustaining individual rights, which in itself is not entirely democratic.

Democracy never had a chance, given our fragmented and oppressive early beginnings as a nation whose commitment to inequality remains a significant barrier to group uplift for scores of Americans of color—poor whites as well—still living still in the margins of society. With so much income and wealth inequality in the U.S., distrust is a key factor in the rise of gun sales and the sustained increased in black violence. Besides the unequal founding of the nation, which gave rise to inequality in the first place, distrust breeds fear, particularly of the unknown. Human beings are naturally xenophobic, conditioned to see the racial other—especially black men—as the “boogey man,” Historically, African American men were seen as a direct threat to white male masculinity, which justified white brutality against them. Today, white and black fears of black male violence may be as big a concern than the actual crime itself, and fear of violence disproportionately affects the stigmatized—the poor, women and minority groups.

Young men of color from disadvantaged communities and circumstances overwhelmingly perpetuate violent crime. Research bares this fact, particularly if you look at the murder rate in the city of Chicago since 2008 where large numbers of young men of color reside and violent acts peak in during the late teens and early twenties. Because young men of color have largely been shut out, left out, locked up and left behind, there is very little else to turn to but one’s pride. We humans care a great deal what others think about us. The threat of being possibly shamed and humiliated are so powerful that laboratory studies have been conducted pitting African American math students against White math students, and through the power of suggestion, black students cognitively underperformed their white colleagues. Yet, when those same students were informed that they tend to perform similarly or better than their white counterparts, their scores reflect their beliefs. Similar studies have been performed on White men and Asian men with comparable outcomes, white men underperformed their Asian counterparts when it is suggested that they will do so. Positive valuations that we matter in the world are important for human well being, especially for men who have strong incentives to maintain as high a social status as possible.

Social status matters for man’s sense of “success,” often embodied within material objects like cars, ostentatious jewelry, neighborhoods, shoes and the sexification of women, which may explain why disrespect, humiliation and shame are often triggers of violent acts. The old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” could not be further from the truth. With high numbers of unemployment, low educational expectations, early death, and bleak prospects for the future, America sends a clear message to the masses of black men struggling with feelings of inadequacy that they do not matter much in the world, and the process for many begins in early childhood. By the time African American males reach adolescences, the potential threat of violence over some aspect of one’s identity is very real. American inequality only hastens status competition among young men of color through unequal discriminatory practices in a number of social settings. There is an established body of evidence that supports the claim that greater inequality coincides with increased homicide rates, among other markers of a deprivation in society.

Whereas white Americans enjoy more privileged ways to cope with the daily stresses of life like joining a gym, playing tennis, mediating or practicing yoga, young African American males are catching hell daily in the streets of Anywhere, America. And no one is crying for them or sending condolences to their grieving family members whose innocent little children lay dead in the streets, whose young lives where taken way too soon. Instead, we as a society place blame on the backs of those children as troublemakers. More gun control is merely a band-aid to our social ills and does not address the underlying causes of oppressive and institutional structures that are tightly linked to American inequality as reflected in wealth and income distribution. Instead, this quick-fix solution only fuels further violence, enhancing our greatest fears of being victims of violence.

Putting human rights before property rights is the only real solution for changing the tide of violence in Black communities, and that means better jobs, health care, education & affordable housing. Such an imagined community would require a fundamental shift in racist ideology and the institutional arrangements, which maintain power and privilege. But I maintain hope for our future.

Follow me on twitter @drdarronsmith or visit me at darronsmith.com

About dsmith

Dr. Darron T. Smith is a frequent political and cultural commentator on various issues of U.S. based and global issues of race, racism, and discrimination in forums ranging from Religion Dispatches, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune op-ed to ESPN’s Outside the Lines. His research spans a wide myriad of topics on race including healthcare disparities, Religious studies, Race & Sports, and Race, Adoption and the Black Family.

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