By Dawn X. Henderson, PhD (Co-Director, Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) Collaborative)
When my son was just eight weeks and two days into his gestational period, I settled my anxiety of giving birth to a Black male. The night before I gave birth, unlike his twin sister, he was hovered up into the corner of my womb and his heart rate had begun to slow down. That following morning, he was born. Now 20, my Black son has dreams and aspirations but there is the threat of death in the air. He continues to learn how to silence the stories, messages, and images of the death of Black males.
Now, imagine as a mother the threat of death in the very first breath of your infant’s life; unfortunately, this low sense of life expectancy exists for Black males in the United States. Across the lifespan, Black males encounter a number of social stressors and negative depictions in the media. Black males, along with other males of color and sexual minorities, encounter a significant number of adverse social conditions that disrupt their capacity to live well.
Here are a few statistics:
Black males have the lowest life expectancy – 71.8 years compared with the national average of 78.7 years across all racial groups in the United States.
Black males have an infant mortality rate of 11.97 per 1000 births, higher than Black females (10.23) and almost double the national average for all male infants (6.51).
The death rates of Black male infants between birth to 1 year increased by 2.5% between 2014 and 2015.
Childhood and Adolescence
The death rates of Black males between 1 year and 24 years, on average, increased by 6.8% between 2014 and 2015 compared to 4.8% for Black females. This rate increase for Black males is more than five times higher than the age-adjusted national average of 1.2%.
Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among Black males between 1 and 14 years; homicide is the second leading cause of death among Black males between 1 and 4 years and between 10 and 14 years.
Homicide is the leading cause of death among Black males between 15 and 24 years.
Between 2011 and 2013, the rate of gun deaths among Black males ages 20 and 29 years was about nine times higher than Black females.
Homicide is the leading cause of death among Black males between 25 and 34 years.
From 35 years forward, heart disease (outside of cancer) remains one of the leading causes of death among Black males.
These are alarming statistics but a focus on individual deficits not only denies the capacity of Black males but also overlooks the confounding effects of poverty, discrimination in the criminal justice system and public education system, and, more specifically, racism on their life expectancy.
Acknowledging the resilience of Black males helps to shift the narrative by focusing on their assets and capacity in their families and community. My life would be a little emptier if I did not witness my son smiling and creating his beautiful music in defiance of the odds stacked against him.
As psychologists, educators, researchers, and practitioners we must focus our work on building the capacity of families and communities of color to promote resilience.
Here are a few suggestions:
Work with health care facilities and public health agencies to ensure Black mothers are getting access to prenatal care early as well as access to mental health services.
Increase education on home safety and traffic safety among Black parents in order to prevent unintentional injuries and death.
Provide culturally comprehensive parenting strategies to assist parents with building the psychosocial assets Black males need to promote a positive and healthy racial identity and to manage conflict and stress.
Increase access to spaces, like community organizations, where Black males receive positive mentoring and affirming messages, and where they can be vulnerable and participate in advocacy.
Increase access to mental health professionals trained in trauma-informed counseling and treatment services who understand the effects of racism on the mental health of Black males and intersecting identities (e.g., bisexual, gay, transgender, and queer).
Continue to pressure our legislative representatives at the state and federal levels to treat gun violence as a public health issue in the United States.
Read more about the health disparities that boys and men of color face and strategies for how to overcome them in APA’s recent report: Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic and Sexual Minority Boys and Men
Learn more about racial/ethnic socialization and its benefits for youth of color through APA’s RESilience Initiative
Dr. Dawn X. Henderson writes from the stance of a community psychologist and the mother of a Black male. She is a member of the Society for Community Research and Action (Division 27, American Psychological Association) and the Co-Director of the Collective Health and Education Equity Research collaborative.