The structure it provides, along with the values it instills, strengthens employment prospects, family life, and more.
From Barack Obama to Rand Paul, Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jason Riley: Across the ideological spectrum, scholars, pundits, and politicians seem to agree that black men are floundering. As the president observed in 2014, “by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color.”
In some ways, Obama is right. Rates of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration are higher among black men than among white men. Young African Americans are also far more likely than young white men to become victims of violent crime. But the conversation about black men often glosses over the fact that most African American men are not poor, out of work, or destined to spend time in prison.
Why do some black men flourish while others struggle? One answer is faith. African American men attend church at rates notably above the national average: 37 percent of those aged 18 to 60 attend several times a month or more, compared to 30 percent of non-black men, according to the 2008-2014 General Social Survey. And compared to their less religious peers, these 6 million or so black men are significantly more likely to thrive. Our new book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, shows they are more likely to be working, avoid crime and incarceration, and get married.
Liberals and conservatives have different explanations for the racial divide in the United States. Conservatives like Jason Riley argue that dysfunctional values and norms have helped create America’s racial disparities in crime, incarceration, and employment. Conversely, Ta-Nehisi Coates contends that unjust and racist structural forces—including poor job opportunities, unsafe neighborhoods, failing schools, and discriminatory housing and policing policies—have produced America’s racial disparities.
These don’t have to be mutually exclusive explanations. Our analyses of trends in work, crime, incarceration, and family indicate that both structural and cultural factors have shaped the differing life experiences of white and black men. But focusing on racial differences can obscure the fact that many African American men are doing well. One of the reasons why some black men flourish is their participation in the black church. (We focus on the black church because there are not enough black men in other traditions, such as Islam, to make statistical claims about in the surveys we analyzed for our book.)
Churchgoing black men are significantly less likely to participate in what the sociologist Elijah Anderson has called the “code of the street”: an ethos marked by violence, criminal activity, a live-for-the-moment mentality, and a desire to protect oneself by projecting strength. This culture has emerged partly from the structural disadvantages black men face, including racism, concentrated poverty, police brutality, and fatherless households. Coates has written about the code in his reflections on his own life growing up in West Baltimore. Here, in a letter to his son:
The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed. When I was your age, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with whom I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, whom or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.
This culture, and the injustices from which it flows, helps explain why some young black men end up struggling in America.
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