Missing Black Men

I suck at Biology. When I hear about genes, I think “Levi’s.” I thought chromosomes were fancy watches. But, I do know one thing. The odds of a person being born a biological male is about 1 in 2. So, when I look at the world, I expect to see about 1 male for every 1 female. But for Black adults, that’s not what I see. And, it’s not even that close. The issue is “Missing Black Men.”

A 2015 article from the New York Times pointed out that about 1.5 million Black men are missing. Indeed, when I look at the data the government uses to construct the monthly unemployment report, I see only 80 Black men for every 100 Black women. For white people, it’s 98 men to 100 women.

Of course, these Black men aren’t really missing…we know where these men are. It’s just that the answer is really, really sad.

Missing Black Men Cause 1: Imprisonment

According to that New York Times Article, about 1 in 12 Black men age 25 to 54 are in jail. The comparable number for non-black men is 1 in 60. In other words, Black men are five times more likely to be in jail than non-black men.

And, economics plays a role. Property crimes and drug crimes account for a large share of arrests for people of all races and ethnicities. These types of crimes are more likely to occur when people are under economic duress. One of the reasons I don’t commit a crime is that I have a job I like and that pays pretty well. If I got caught committing a crime, I don’t think Boston College would look too fondly on it. So, I have a lot of incentive to stay on the straight and narrow.

But, for some Black men those same incentives aren’t there. For example, we know that Black men are less likely to have jobs than white men. Today, the unemployment rate for Black men is 16.3 percent. For white men it’s 9.0 percent. And, we know that abject discrimination and educational inequality play a large role in this inequality.

And, for the same reasons Black men are employed less often than white men, Black men also make less than white men. The consequences are obvious. An early study of young Black men in Washington D.C. who were involved in the drug trade found that “a substantial percentage of those who sell drugs earn much more than they can earn from legitimate activities.” Indeed, many of the young men studied used selling drugs as moonlighting in addition to a legitimate job that did not pay very well.

So, one result of the economic inequality I have been writing about is an inequality in incentives to commit crime. And that’s before you get into the fact that the judicial system itself is biased against Black men. So, incarceration is one reason Black men are missing from free society.

Missing Black Men Cause 2: Death

The other reason Black men are missing is that they are more likely to die at younger ages. The figure below plots out mortality rates by age for Black men and white men. It shows that Black men are 60 to 70 percent more likely to die than white men at most ages.

Figure. Mortality Rates for Men by Age and Race, 1999-2018

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2018 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2020. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2018, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html on Mar 15, 2020.

So, why does this higher death rate happen? I came across an interesting study that offers some insights. The study pointed out that the mortality differences above translate to a 6-year life expectancy gap between Black men and white men. Part of the issue is tied to the one above — homicide accounted for almost a quarter of this gap. But, a larger portion of the gap — 33 percent — was attributable to so-called “medically amenable” causes of death

What’s a medically amenable cause of death? I am glad I asked. It is a cause of death that is unnecessary or untimely. In other words, with good primary care, hospital care, screening, and/or public health programs, the person would still be alive. A classic example would be appendicitis — someone with good access to medical care should not die of this condition. Black men die of these sorts of conditions so much more often than white people, that it would add about 2 years to their lives if they were just equal.

And It’s not hard to see why Black people have worse access to good care. Black people have lower incomes and live in segregated areas where good hospitals may not be. Black people are also less likely to have access to health insurance and therefore less likely to have access to good screening. Why? Well, we tie our health insurance to employers in the U.S.. So, discrimination and educational inequality that prevent good jobs also prevent health insurance. Quite a cycle.

And, these inequalities are playing out right now, to the extreme. As people much smarter than me have noted, the Coronavirus pandemic is hitting Black people more than white people. Crowded living conditions, jobs that are lower-paying but essential, and inconsistent health care all play a role. We weren’t doing a good job before, and we sure as heck aren’t doing a good job now with racial equality in health. So, mortality is another reason for missing Black men.

Missing, but We Shouldn’t Forget

The problem with people being “missing” is that they can be easy to ignore. Black men who are in prison or who are deceased do not have a voice. Therefore, as a society we must refocus. The consequences of discrimination and educational inequalities are not just economic. They have much deeper impacts, that can be much harder to see. Fixing these inequalities would not only improve the economic situation of Black men, but they would likely lower the ranks of the missing.

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