Being a Black Man
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Poll Reveals a Contradictory Portrait Shaded With Promise and Doubt

As the distance between the races narrows, new tensions have emerged in the way black men perceive themselves and their lives.
As the distance between the races narrows, new tensions have emerged in the way black men perceive themselves and their lives. (Michel du Cille / The Washington Post)

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By Steven A. Holmes and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Black men in America today are deeply divided over the way they see themselves and their country.

Black men report the same ambitions as most Americans -- for career success, a loving marriage, children, respect. And yet most are harshly critical of other black men, associating the group with irresponsibility and crime.

Black men describe a society rife with opportunities for advancement and models for success. But they also express a deep fear that their hold on the good life is fragile, in part because of discrimination they continue to experience in their daily lives.

This portrait of the divided black man emerges from a survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The survey of 2,864 people, including a sample of 1,328 black men, aimed to capture the experiences and perceptions of black men at a time marked by increasing debate about how to build on their achievements and address the failures that endure decades after the civil rights movement.

In many ways, the outward and inward struggles of black men appear to reflect where the nation is on its journey toward racial equality -- unquestionably further along and, yet, at risk of moving backward.

Many are left behind: The suicide rate among young black men has doubled since 1980.

One in four black men have not worked for at least a year, twice the proportion of male non-Hispanic whites or Latinos. And trends suggest a third of black males born today will spend time in prison.

"I just get frustrated with my brothers. With black men . . . wasting life. But then, on the other hand, I wonder: Is there something in society that keeps us down?" said Edward Howell, 57, a D.C. resident who was interviewed in the poll.

But the harsh realities also obscure what the survey results illuminate so clearly: Black men in America are a diverse group, and the truth of their experience can be found as much among the ordinary lives of the vast middle as in the extremes.

"This country is filled with highly successful black men who are leading balanced, stable, productive lives working all over the labor market," said Hugh Price, former president of the National Urban League. "They're stringing fiber-optic cable for Verizon or working the floor at Home Depot. . . . It's a somewhat invisible story."

On the whole, survey respondents showed a powerful connection to a common history that crosses lines of education, income, age and geography, and stands in sharp contrast to the perceptions of many of their white counterparts.

The poll also documents how the enormous changes in society over the last generations have rippled through the lives of black men. But as the distance between the races begins to narrow, new tensions have emerged in the way black men perceive themselves and their lives:

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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