Where Have All the Black Men Gone?

A few weeks ago I was stunned by a front page New York Times article headlined, “1.5 Million Black Men, Missing from Daily Life.”

As troubling as the recent deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement have been, they serve as tragic examples of a larger trend of our own “disappeared,” reminiscent of “the disappeared” in the recent histories of Argentina and Chile.

In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South—from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo.—hundreds of thousands are missing.

They are missing largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars.

The article reports, among the cities with a minimum of 10,000 black citizens, Ferguson, Missouri “has the largest proportion of missing black men.”

So there are disproportionately more black women than black men, a gender gap not found in childhood (nor among whites), but one that widens among those in their 20s and 30s, according to the story. 

Though murders and AIDS deaths have diminished among black men since the 1990s, “rising numbers of black men spared an early death have been offset by rising numbers behind bars.” This does not reflect more crime, but rather, changes in law enforcement, prosecutions, and systemic injustices that have increased their incarceration.

“Where is your husband?” Jesus essentially asked the mixed-race woman at the well. Biblical interpreters have been quick to assign sexual shame to the Samaritan woman for having had five husbands and for living with a man who was not her husband, when it’s just as possible her history was the result of economic need, a high mortality rate, abandonment, and the deprivations caused by political subjugation and racial, religious, and gender prejudices.

No wonder she responded so enthusiastically to the good news Jesus offered.

During the ingathering of saints of the Presbyterian LGBT movement that I described a few weeks ago, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dan Smith, made the observation that many of the men in our movement have also “disappeared” due to AIDS.

Those who once served as gay Christian role models are unknown to subsequent generations, even as they themselves were deprived of role models of earlier generations by a church that required closetedness and a culture which diminished and incarcerated “sodomites.” And, with the Samaritan woman, “the powers that be” assigned their fates to shameful behavior.

Referencing the Samaritan woman reminds me to add that women may be the most “disappeared” of all—not in real numbers, but in real attention.

I mentioned in the earlier post that LGBT achievement in terms of acceptance may be because we are “everywhere,” but women are also everywhere, and it doesn’t necessarily deter sexism or encourage their recognition and advancement. That Jesus would engage a mixed-race woman in one of the most meaningful spiritual conversations in the Gospels is significant.

Prejudice makes many “disappear,” whether from our radar or from our communities. Jesus could be said to have brought us to “mindfulness” of those overlooked or downright oppressed.

Jesus came for all “the disappeared.”

Photo via tumblr user Chris Wieland

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