Invisible Men

Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

How society and social work turn a blind eye to the troubles of African-American males

Throughout their lives, African-American males, as a group, face a disproportionately high set of hurdles to well-being. From birth to age 4, African Americans are approximately four times more likely to be a victim of homicide than white children, for example, and African-American males are at increased risk compared to other demographic groups for hypertension, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.

A lack of support from social policy and active engagement from social work as a profession have contributed to these troubles, according to Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., associate professor at SSA. "Social work and social welfare programs have historically focused on vulnerable individuals and the family and have not supported what is seen as dependence in the able-bodied, namely adult males," he argues. "Unfortunately, the developmental trajectory to becoming able-bodied men for African-American males is largely truncated during childhood, and both individual challenges and structural barriers affect their successful transition into adulthood. As a result, the profession has not always served this population well."

Johnson is the editor of Social Work With African American Males: Health, Mental Health, and Social Policy, a book covering the conflicting perspectives, roles and identities of African- American males from adolescence through adulthood. Released by Oxford University Press in April, the book draws from a wide selection of researchers to examine topics that relate to family, education, mental and physical health, and criminal justice.

When taking a broad view that encompasses everything from the child welfare system's treatment of noncustodial parents to suicidal behavior of young African-American men, a picture emerges of interconnecting issues that have dire consequences. African-American males, for example, are more likely than other groups to have lower socioeconomic status, be single, and not have access to regular medical care. All these factors—and more—combine to contribute to relatively higher risk for poor health outcomes.

Johnson says that the discussion should also include the roles African- American males play as fathers, role models and community members, often at odds with institutions that aren't open to their participation or input. "African-American males are not only absent from households and neighborhoods of their children and families, but they are also ignored as stakeholders in discussions of African- American families and communities," Johnson writes in the book's first chapter.

At a time when an African-American male is president of the United States, it might seem as though these issues are fading. Johnson points out, however, that from educational outcomes to employment opportunities, things are in fact getting worse for many African- American youth and men. And, he adds, "in virtually every area examined in this volume, there are better opportunities for the profession to engage this population more effectively as individuals, as well as family and community members."

— Carl Vogel