Black Male: Re-Imagined

1 out of 3 boys born to African American families today will likely to go to jail.

Black men are 8% of the population in the United States and comprise 3% of college undergraduates and 48% of prison inmates.

1 out of 2 young black men do not finish high school; 3 out of 4 of them will be unemployed and 60% of them will eventually be incarcerated.

That is the state of black men and boys in America. It is a state of urgency.

In the last 5 years, the landscape for black males has seen marked changes. Most notably, the presidency of Barack Obama, coupled with a growing number of philanthropic initiatives to improve the life outcomes of black men and boys, offers a new picture of opportunity and hope.

Yet the important work being done is often undercut by the barrage of negative associations and perceptions made about black men in the media. In essence, the continuous marginalization of black men is a direct function of how they are perceived by American society. To change reality, we must change perceptions.

I have already talked in this blog series about the power of our unconscious biases as developed by imagery – the challenges facing black men highlight our biases dramatically. When the average American, white or black, is hooked up to monitors to measure heart and respiratory rates and images of black men are flashed before them, those rates increase rapidly suggesting greater emotion and anxiety. Using brain scans and other neuro-imaging indicators, researchers have discovered that fear is registered in our amygdalas simply when we look at the faces of black men over white men. During ‘shooter bias’ tests which involve rapidly identifying and shooting a threat (online) – the unarmed black target is shot 70% times more than the armed white target. The consequences for our unconscious biases with regard to black men can mean life and death. Please view these studies at our website.

In December 2010, American Values Institute in partnership with the Open Society Foundations’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the Knight Foundation convened thought leaders, practitioners, activists, and media influencers to discuss campaign strategies to re-imagine black men in American media thereby challenging and transforming their perceptions in our public and policy discourse – indeed our hearts and minds. The goals of the convening, called Black Male: Re-Imagined, were to explore the power of shaping narratives, leveraging access to traditional and non-traditional media, and other forms of art and culture, and most importantly, linking our narratives to concrete actions and work on the ground.

This conversation brought artist and media executives from Andre Harrell, Spike Lee, Tom Burrell, and Warrington Hudlin, to Charles Blow, Maria Hinojosa, Q-Tip, Lupe Fiasco, Nick Cannon and Russell Simmons. And we connected to organizing luminaries and thought leaders such as Haki Madhubuti, Haile Gerima, Rashad Robinson, and Geoffrey Canada. The interdisciplinary nature of the conversation asked panellists and participants alike to push beyond their own theories about how black male perceptions have been created and can be changed to inform a larger communications strategy.

One of the most exciting panels for me was the last panel of the convening which featured visual artists in the black community who are considering, visualizing and, indeed, envisioning the state of black men as they are and how they should be seen. This panel featured work by Hank Willis Thomas, Lauren Kelly, and Adam Pendleton, Jamal Cyrus. Rashida Bumbray, a curator at The Kitchen, moderated. The power of their art to inspire and create provocative emotion and thought about the humanity of black men really set the tone for how we can truly re-imagine and transform the perceptions of black men in America.

As we embark on a new phase of developing a set of campaigns around Black Male: Re-Imagined — I’d love to hear your thoughts on things to consider.