Excerpted From: Paul Butler, Black Masculinity and the Government, 2022 University of Chicago Legal Forum 21 (97 Footnotes) (Full Document)


PaulButlerBlack male bodies have long been the subject of special attention from the state. This essay focuses on two government interventions in Black masculinity, dating from the 1960s, and their continuing consequences-- including for the criminal legal system, and race and gender justice.

One intervention promoted the importance of having Black men in the same homes as their wives and children, as the heads of idealized traditional families, i.e. heterosexual, nuclear, and middle-class families. The goal was to install, or restore, the Black man as the patriarch of the family and the representative of the race.

The other intervention empowered law enforcement officers to touch Black male bodies, ostensibly as a crime control measure. The Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, affirmed the constitutionality of the practice known as “stop and frisk,” in which the police seize and search suspects who they do not have sufficient legal ground to arrest. Terry authorized a physical, aggressive, violence-adjacent form of policing intended to demonstrate that the cops--not Black men--run the streets. The Court's decision helped lay the groundwork for race-based policing practices and mass incarceration.

One way of looking at these interventions is that one sought to repair Black men and the other sought to regulate them. Both were implicitly critiques of Black masculinity, whether aimed at improving or containing it. White masculinity, on the other hand, was posited as something that Black males should strive for, or fear.

These governmental excursions in Black masculinity were based on false premises, including that there is only one way to be a man, that white male privileges would be available to Black men if they acted more like white men, and that crime can be controlled by police aggression toward Black males. Masculinity is a set of learned practices, not rooted in biology, that are historically contingent, evolve over time, and are necessarily plural. But the gender performances that these interventions intended to evoke from Black males were rooted in Anglo-American settler patriarchy. Black men were being set up to play a competition that, on its own terms, they could never win. The focus on masculinity served to blame Black men for the deprivations they suffer, discount the force of structural racism, and obscure the interests of Black people who do not identify as male, especially Black women and girls.

This essay proceeds as follows. Part II describes a project, from the presidential administration of Lydon Baines Johnson, to re-shape Black masculinity in the image of a specific kind of white masculinity. Part III examines Terry v. Ohio as a case about Black and white masculinities. Part IV tells the story of a city jail in which Black male inmates and Black female correctional officers engaged in relationships forged in a crucible of mass incarceration and toxic masculinity, both Black and white. Part V offers some tentative observations about what all of this means.

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“[I]t is one of the ironies of [B]lack-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the [B]lack man to be, the [B]lack man is enabled to know who the white man is.”

“Men roam shirtless, as if none ever hurt me.”

Black men need help. Our bodies remain at risk, from the state, and from each other. Murder is the leading cause of death of young Black men. One in one thousand Black men and boys will be killed by the police. Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men. African American men are more likely to have dropped out of high school, and less likely to have graduated from college, than Black women or white men. Our unemployment rate also exceeds those groups.

It seems irrefutable that, as the Moynihan Report posits, centuries of entrenched white supremacy have denigrated Black masculinity. The difficult questions now are what exactly is the evidence of damage and what the appropriate remedies should be.

In venturing down this road, I want to be careful not to view African American men through the “lens of damage” that some scholars have decried. Most Black men will not be incarcerated. Some studies have demonstrated that Black men play a more active role in the lives of their children than similarly situated white men. Despite the “endangered species” narrative that is sometimes used to describe African American men, we are alive, if not quite well. Many are thriving. This is no small accomplishment, and it seems as possible to credit our masculinity for our achievements as to denigrate it for our failures.

The term “blaming the victim” was first used as the title of a book criticizing the Moynihan Report. Indeed. Black male programming too often rests on stereotypes about Black men and women. In his commencement address at Howard in 1965, President Johnson announced that he would be holding a White House Conference titled “To Fulfill These Rights” with the object to “help the American Negro fulfill the rights which, after the long time of injustice, he is finally about to secure.” At this conference in 1966, A. Phillip Randolph, a prominent voice of the Civil Rights and Labor Movement, described the Black community this way:

Thus, men plagued with forced idleness, women have to carry the burden of providing the income, and at the same time caring for their children. Is it any wonder that alcohol and narcotics and gambling and various forms of antisocial action are found in the black ghettos? And is it any wonder that children and youth are damaged emotionally and mentally?

Much of the Black male programming emanating from the Moynihan Report rehearses this analysis. President Barack Obama stated that the concept of his signature racial justice project, the “My Brother's Keeper” initiative, came to him after the death of Trayvon Martin. Martin was seventeen years old when he was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed “neighborhood watchman.” Martin's death inspired the movement for Black lives.

Obama did not explain why the killing of an unarmed Black teenager by a white and Latinx man motivated him to establish an achievement program for men of color. But his other remarks, at the White House rollout of My Brother's Keeper, were more revealing. The nation's first Black president observed that growing up, “I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it .... I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses.”

Some Black male programs are premised on the same construction of the Black man as threatening and dangerous as seize and search. Other interventions supported by these programs can be seen as implicit behavioral critiques of Black masculinity as dysfunctional or pathological.

Still, if Black masculinity consists of some cultural and behavioral practices common to many Black men, it should not be off-limits to interrogate these practices. Black men are about 6.5 percent of the population of the United States but are responsible for approximately half of all murders. Black men commit more murders, in absolute numbers, than Latino men, who slightly outnumber us, and white men, who greatly outnumber us. Because violent crime is mainly intra-racial, Black men are also about 50 percent of homicide victims. For young Black women and men, homicide is one of the leading causes of death, and in most cases the perpetrator is a Black men. Stopping violent crime by Black men is for Black people a matter of life and death.

As noted in Part 2, the Johnson administration intended to use the Moynihan Report to institute a series of policy initiatives that would have, ostensibly, helped Black men. But Johnson abandoned this effort, because of activism that was largely led by Black men. One reason was that they were appropriately concerned that a focus on repairing or improving Black masculinity would deflect a more deserving critique of white masculinity and/or structural ant-Black racism. The Obama administration's My Brother's Keeper project seems intended as a progressive intervention, but its framing, which rhetorically excludes girls even when some actual MBK programs do not, reinforces these problems.

Is there a way of addressing the effects of patriarchy and white supremacy that is not inevitably anti-female or anti-queer, that acknowledges the diversity of masculinities, and that recognizes the intersectional identities of Black men? We have yet to see one. Until we do, masculinity, in any form, remains a problematic site for government tinkering.