Black Male Privilege?

A new look at the cross section of race and empowerment as it relates to black men has spelled out a new theory that one sociologist dubs "black male privilege." Host Michel Martin speaks with L'Heureux Lewis, assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York, for more on why he thinks black male privilege exists.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a look at the most powerful woman in television, and how she also helped revolutionize the film industry, Oprah Winfrey. Its part of our Divas on Screen series about black women in film. The Oscars are this weekend. Thats coming up.

But first, we want to talk about black men for a moment because on just about any day, there is some tragic story about black men in the news on the Internet or bandied about at the water cooler. And often those stories are about how black men are mistreated by police or underserved by educators or about how they are falling short in some way. But sociologist LHeureux Lewis, who is himself a black man, has been thinking about and documenting a fresh take on the question of black men and race and power, as a theory that he calls black male privilege.

And if that raises your eyebrows, you are not alone. So, we called him to find out more. Hes - LHeureux Lewis is an assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York, and he joins us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Professor LHEUREUX LEWIS (Sociology, City University of New York): Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So, define black male privilege. Im sure thats a phrase on its face that will get people to sit up and take notice.

Prof. LEWIS: My working definition is really a system of built-in and often overlooked systematic advantages that center the experience and the concerns of black males while minimizing the power that black males hold, which is a fancy way of saying, we are absolutely used to talking about African-American men in crisis. And we can talk about this crisis so much that we miss the ways in which black men are oppressed and can also serve as oppressors.

MARTIN: And when you say privileged, I think generally people think of privilege in relation to whom. So, when you think of privilege, are you speaking relative to someone?

Prof. LEWIS: Absolutely. Black male privilege is first centered as being relative to black women. Im not comparing black males privilege to white male privilege. I think one could argue that, but itd be a very dangerous leap. When we look in the African-American community, there are actually spaces where black men are advantaged and often sometimes dominate a dialogue, when we should be listening more carefully to whats happening with black women equally.

MARTIN: Give an example.

Prof. LEWIS: In particular, if we think about the narrative of mass incarceration, we think about the ways in which black men and black boys have been locked up at increasing rates since the 1980s. While this is true, the fastest growing incarceration rate is particularly among black and Latino women. And because we havent thought seriously about whats happening with black girls and Latino girls, we tend to make the issue of incarceration solely male, and we miss the different ways in which we need to be intervening not just for our young boys, but also our young girls.

MARTIN: Well, give another example then, because I think people would say focusing on those who are even worse off than you doesnt mean youre well off.

Prof. LEWIS: Well, the first time I really came to think about black male privilege was when I was a freshman at Morehouse College. And at that point, there was actually an incident of sexual assault between a Morehouse student and a Spelman student. And what I found quickly were that black men were -instead of actually talking seriously about issues of sexual assault, which are very common in our community, it became a discussion about the ways in which black men become vilified. So, what happens is we often look at issues like domestic violence or sexual assault, and instead of actually dealing with those who are survivors or the victims of it, predominantly African-American women, we re-center it on black men.

MARTIN: Whats driving this, in your view? Is it their idea that group solidarity is so important in the African-American community, somehow the community has made a decision that when theres an issue involving black men and black women that black men are to be favored?

Prof. LEWIS: I think youve unfortunately identified one of the central issues of black male privilege. So often, black men are used to being under attacked that when it comes to being accountable for the actions we may have, we quickly say, well, I couldnt possibly be doing anything wrong. Look at all the ways in which Im oppressed. Look at all the ways in which Im at the bottom of the barrel. What that does is rob us of an opportunity to actually build stronger community and it robs black men of a chance to actually take hold of the actions that they have so that we can empower the community.

MARTIN: What reaction do you get when you talk to people about this?

Prof. LEWIS: Among black women, in particular, I get a lot of amens and saying, thank for actually exposing this. Among black men, one of the most common ones I get is, well, this seems ridiculous. Its an oxymoron. How could black men be privileged? Its like jumbo shrimp. It doesnt add up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEWIS: And they say, you know, what did my black male privilege get me? Im unemployed. What did my black male privilege get me? Im in jail. And what I have to unfortunately explain is one of the things that black male privilege allows you to do is center your oppression to the exclusion of others. So, instead of saying, why, yes, there are ways in which black men are promoted more often than black women. Why, yes, there are ways in which you reach certain educational levels, black men get higher pay rates than their black female counterparts who are equally skilled.

We should be turning that on its head and saying, how do we make sure black women have equal parity to us, instead of saying: Hey, I've got to keep the little ground that I have. And I think that, for a long time, the reason that black women are often speaking up in support of this is because black feminists have challenged us to think differently and said: Hey, black men, brothers, could you look out for us as we look out for the whole? As black feminists have taught us. There can be no liberation for half a race.

MARTIN: How did you get started on this? Because I take your point that this is a point of view that has been advanced - not popularly - by, you know, African-American women and particularly African-American feminists, but it is not one that has been particularly well received. So Im interested in how you, as a male scholar, got interested in this.

Prof. LEWIS: Initially, my first exposure was actually around the Million Man March. I felt that I was transformed by the Million Man March, and I thought it was one of the most powerful events ever. And I was having a conversation in class with a professor, Dr. Beverly Guy Sheftall, and she said that she couldnt support the Million Man March because it was very patriarchal and it put black men at the center. And I said, well, it doesnt always have to patriarchal. You dont always have to put black men at the center. And if she said, isnt it an amazing privilege to tell someone else what they dont have to take seriously? And that paused me for a moment. And I said, wow. What is it in my past that makes me say I can define what someone else would think of as important?

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with LHeureux Lewis. He's a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. And were talking about his theory of black male privilege.

The other sensitive area that is talked about in this is - you know, how can I put this in a way that is something that we can discuss in a family setting -negotiating sex.

Prof. LEWIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Which is an issue that's - is, you know, a very real and much-discussed issue in the African-American community. Is it partly your theory that the imbalance on the college campuses, the imbalance in education, high incarceration rates - partly because of all those things that black men who are not subject to those issues, those negatives, and who are, in essence, taking advantage by being - what? Selfish when it comes to negotiating sex, or kind of using their power.

Prof. LEWIS: I think it's a perfect example of privilege, with a shrinking number of eligible of black men who are educated, who are employed et cetera. Those of us who have made it through the ranks made it through the crisis, right, as they often call it. We end up having or engaging in dating practices - and even married men - in practices in which instead of actually exercising discretion, its like a kid in a candy store. Its like, well, I can have Reese's and I can Hersheys and I can have M&M's.

And then when you ask brothers what theyre doing, they're like, well, as Jewel Woods has found in his book "Dont Blame It on Rio," theyll suggest that it's actually reward for all of the issues that they faced as a black man, which now we have this ongoing narrative of black single women who cant find mates. And it centers on what are the issues of black women. Of course, Jimi Izrael just released a book, "The Denzel Principle," and it says why black women cant find good black men, versus saying: Well, what are the things that brothers are doing that are also impacting how people date, impacting mate selection and impact how we build a community?

MARTIN: What do you - what about that argument? That if black men are saying that, you know, maybe they didnt get a chance to experience the patriarchy back when it was fashionable for white men, you know. Maybe they didnt get to sort of have that power position in society, and they say its my turn. What do you say to that?

Prof. LEWIS: Well, I say it can be your turn if youre most concerned with your own self aggrandizement. If youre interested in a community growing and developing, you have to realize when you put the brakes on privilege. All too often, people who have the opportunity to change a system when they get to the top continue it. Particularly as black men, we should be aware that those who are in power will often try to recreate the same cycles of oppression. Why would we want to do that to our sisters, to our mothers and to our community at large?

MARTIN: What would you say to those - and this has been an argument since the '60s, as you know - that, in fact, the African-American is, in fact, matriarchal, that African-American women - relative to men - have more power than among other groups and are, in fact, the privileged. The argument is that they are more tolerable or more accepted by the white power structure, that they are considered easier to get along with, that they, in fact, have more power within families because they tend to be the heads of households. What do you say to those who argue that, in fact, this community is matriarchal?

Prof. LEWIS: Right. I think - you know, and I fully address it as the myth of black matriarchy, because what youre talking about are limited spaces and zones of power. We do know, among service sector jobs, that black women are more likely to employed. But we do know among the jobs that provide the greatest amount of advancement, the greatest amount of security, black women are less likely to get hired, less likely to get promoted and less likely to have suitable wages. When you have a system that doesnt allow a black woman full opportunity, then theyre going to have to try to operate in small spaces in which they make have some form of power.

When people started advancing and suggesting, well, the black community is matriarchal because black women are heads of households, it was often because of the absence of black men. Black men absolving the responsibility or trying to step around it have left black women trying to run things on their own. And I think as a community, its our job to come together as egalitarian bodies to try to make for a better family structure, a better community.

MARTIN: What do you want to happen now as a result of the conversations that you have sparked with this? I know you presented your thoughts at your alma mater. I dont know what reaction you got there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And - so what do you want to have happen?

Prof. LEWIS: Right. As you alluded to, I presented this talk at Morehouse, which actually had the courage to invite me down, and then even put it up on the Internet. So I want to salute them for that. One of the things I said we need to do seriously on college campuses is take the issue of men's studies -how does a gender operate? Not just for women, but for men. What does it mean to be between privilege and peril? We need to ask black men, also, engage study circles. Its not just what you do in the classroom, but what you do outside.

How do you learn and figure out how you negotiate and how you can actually be someone who's not just helpful to the individual, but the community as a whole? And lastly, even if youre not in school, be accountable. When you see brothers acting out in ways that can be damaging to themselves, to their families and the larger community, just look out for a brother and say: Hey, is that actually the way you want to go? Because more times than not, when I actually engaged black men, I find that making us consider the actions were doing can be revolutionarily and transformative.

MARTIN: LHeureux Lewis is assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City University of New York. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. If you want to see him present his paper at Morehouse, well have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Professor Lewis, thank you so much for speaking with us, and do keep us in touch as you talk more about this. Well be interested in reactions that you continue to get.

Prof. LEWIS: Thank you for having me on.

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