By Kevin Dedner, MPH
The stress of being a Black man is killing Black men. And it is killing me.
I started thinking about this after the verdict was announced in the George Zimmerman case. The verdict made me physically ill. I was paralyzed with sadness. Numb.
When the numbness left, I talked to my family, friends and colleagues and the conversation always turned to the humanity of Black men. Painfully, I realized I had denied men who look like me their humanity because I have often been quick to judge, recklessly assuming someone’s character based on their outer appearance. I think if we are honest, we all have done it. But by doing so, I have denied Black men their God-given humanity.
More importantly, we live in a society that condones and even allows the denial of the humanity of Black men, daily. And this disregard for humanity is killing an entire race of men.
There is no starker evidence of this than when you consider the health and well-being of Black men. Black men are the most vulnerable racial-gender group for almost every health condition in the U.S. And black males have the lowest life expectancy of any group in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, life expectancy at birth for the U.S. population is 78.7 years. Black men are expected to live 71.6 years. Sadly, even these seven years are considered an improvement. (Over the last 10 years, there has been a 23% decrease in mortality among black men.)
While the new Jim Crow and the public health impact of the mass incarceration of men of color and Black men have been well documented and discussed, we don’t hear too much about the stress of being a Black man. In fact, I know I personally shy away from the subject, as I fear being accused of using race as a crutch. But after the verdict, that’s where my thoughts went, mostly because I realized I was carrying a mental burden that I could not adequately explain.
As I talked to my friends, I realized they too were carrying the same burden. After reading some scholarly articles, I concluded our experiences are not unique. Black men carry the burden of two negative social identities as they move through society: one, as member of the African American race, and the other, as a Black male.
This is the weight that all Black men in the United States must carry.
There is a growing body of research that concludes that this stress contributes significantly to poor health. It is no secret that young Black men have a strong likelihood of being murdered. But I was shocked to find data that revealed homicide was the leading cause of death among Black men, ages 15-34. If we are lucky to live pass the age of 34, we must then beat a number of deadly diseases, including heart disease and a variety of cancers. African American men are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than white men and they have the highest rates of hypertension and prostate cancer in the world. They are 14 times more likely to develop kidney failure due to hypertension. Stress is a key factor in theses health disparities.
These data suggests that there is something more to the poor health of Black men. We know that reduced employment prospects, poor quality education, poor neighborhood conditions, and disproportionate rates of incarceration are all contributors to the poor health outcomes of Black men. Even Black men with higher socioeconomic status experience have an elevated mortality rates when compared to other Americans. In a study on race, discrimination, and health outcomes among African Americans, Mays, Cochran, and Barnes state, “Poverty alone cannot fully explain these differences.” In their thought-provoking work, Mays, Cochran and Barnes make the case that discrimination (actual and perceived) lead to a physiological response that elevates blood pressure and heart rate, producing biochemical reactions and hypervigilance that eventually results in disease and mortality. Simply said: Being a Black man and experiencing discrimination contributes to a shorter life.
So the burden I carry is real. It is one that I and all Black men must learn to deal and live with if we intend to live a long life. The Trayvon Martin Case has birthed many conversations– I certainly don’t mean to exploit his death. But let’s add to the conversations some discussions about the stress of being a Black man and the impact this stress has on our health.
Kevin Dedner is the Managing Director of Forward Solutions. His unique background combines grassroots organizing, public health policy development, and administration. Dedner is a graduate of the University of Arkansas with a degree in Political Science and also holds a Masters of Public Health from Benedictine University.
Forward Solutions is a consulting firm committed to helping local communities advance public policy and implement evidence-based interventions to improve the health and overall quality of life for citizens. Forward Solutions is based in Washington, D.C.