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How social work has failed black men

U. CHICAGO (US)—Among disadvantaged people in the United States, the most needy and least helped are perhaps African-American men, according to a new book that details the disadvantages that black men face and suggests ways social workers can help.

Black men suffer in a variety of ways, including being stereotyped as reckless and having little regard for their children, but they are also disadvantaged because changes in the economy have depleted the number of well-paying, manual labor jobs, says Waldo Johnson Jr., an associate professor at the University of Chicago and editor of Social Work With African American Males: Health, Mental Health and Social Policy, recently published by Oxford University Press.

“Contemporary characterizations and depictions suggest that African-American males harbor a lifelong disregard for their own personal development, and a lack of commitment to their loved ones and society in general,” a societal attitude that keeps them from being helped, Johnson says.

Most African-American men do not fit the popular stereotype and fulfill their responsibilities to their families and society, but the stereotype persists, fueled in some ways by media images, Johnson adds.

The problems they face are real, and social workers should feel challenged to put the tools and resources of their profession at work to help black men in need, he says.

The book is a collection of studies, and the contributors are leading scholars in social work and other related fields from around the country.

Among the findings reported in the book:

  • Black male youths are likely to grow up in single-parent homes. The boys often don’t have fathers residing in the home to serve as role models. Without paternal involvement, boys are more likely to develop ideas about what it means to be a man based on negative media portrayals and depictions, which leads them to be emotionally uninvolved and apprehensive.
  • Black males, even as boys, are more likely than other male peers to suffer from stress-induced depression and other physical and mental health problems that may result in homicidal and suicidal behaviors as they mature. Their health problems continue throughout their lives with higher incidences of depression, high blood pressure, heart problems and prostrate cancer. African-American men have a life expectancy similar to that of men in developing countries.
  • Black boys are more likely to experience difficulty in school and are less likely to graduate than any other group.
  • African-American males’ socioeconomic status contributes significantly to their likelihood of being arrested and spending time in prison.
  • African-American males have longer periods of joblessness and lower salaries due to underemployment than men from other demographic groups.

Despite their problems, few programs are designed specifically to help black males, and social workers may not view them as part the families and communities that the workers serve, with the result that black males’ individual needs go unaddressed.

“It is critical to utilize both social work research and practice to articulate these and other challenges that adversely impact the physical, mental, and social health and well-being of African American males,” Johnson says.

In his book, Johnson proposes that effective programs need to replicated, such as well run after-school programs that promote educational achievement and provide sports and other outlets for boys. Social service providers need to open up programs for fathers as well.

There are also some public policy steps we can take, says Johnson, including establishing an independent education and wellness plan for every African-American male born in this country, providing a school-to-work link that enhances opportunities for African-American men to work, and giving African-American men access to public housing.

“Many communities discourage single men from living in public housing, which signals negative value and worth as individuals and members of families who need places to live,” Johnson says.

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