Expert Commentary

Exploring the worldviews of young black men in America: Research chat with sociologist Alford A. Young, Jr.

2015 interview with University of Michigan sociologist Alford A. Young Jr., whose work has explored the lives and outlooks of young African-American males.

Alford A. Young Jr. is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, and a leading researcher on issues of race, diversity and multiculturalism in America. In 2004 he published The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity and Future Life Chances, an in-depth exploration of the lives and psychology of 26 men in their early 20s living in Chicago. Young’s work has focused on the lives of African-American urban poor, with an emphasis on understanding how people’s outlooks and worldviews — what social scientists sometimes call a “schemata of interpretation” — are constructed. In the introduction to The Minds of Marginalized Black Men, Young notes:

The critical issue of socioeconomic mobility is the main terrain upon which these men form ideas and meanings central to how they understand their lives and approach their futures. The part of their worldviews that concerns mobility functions as a central part of their everyday lives inasmuch as it is directly implicated in their status as disenfranchised and immobile citizens on the American social landscape…. The ideas that they present open up entirely new arguments about how such men should be thought about and approached by the public sector, or other parties that interface with their lives. While the contemporary mandate may be one of increased social control via incarceration or police-based surveillance, this study illustrates that the men’s future capacity to act is built upon how they evaluate and articulate their past and present circumstances together with their sense of how the social world operates. That package of ideas, more so than any amalgamation of values and norms, speaks to what they are prepared to do in the future.

He has also delved into a variety of other related cultural topics, such as the meaning of President Obama’s election and symbolic image for black men.

John Wihbey of Journalist’s Resource spoke with Young to explore current issues in relation to his body of research — work that remains especially relevant in the context of our current national conversation about race, following the highly publicized incidents of violence in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. The following transcript has been edited.


Journalist’s Resource: You published The Minds of Marginalized Black Men about a decade ago exactly.

Alford A. Young, Jr.: I still think about it every day.

JR: How do you see its findings and insights now that we are another decade into American life and history?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: The work is essentially an effort to step into a debate about men who are often talked about within the context of substance abuse, family instability or a range of social problems — largely identified with urban-based, African-American men. I thought it was important to tap into different concerns for this population. A lot of what they do is situated in their thoughts about everyday reality and what options they think may exist. It was too simple to regard this population as thinking, “Well, the world is against me and there’s nothing I can do.” Or, “What I want to do will get me the quick and immediate gratification that would otherwise take a long time and lot of investment and energy and effort.”

Having grown up in East Harlem in New York City, and having been around the men I study, I knew there was a lot more than that. I wanted to document that. I wanted to create a space where they could talk about realities that they may not have experienced: The everyday world of work and work opportunity; what they envisioned to be strong families and the strong family unit.

The effort in the end for both the academic and the policy audience was to indicate that, rather than just invest in incentive-based models or sanctioning mechanisms, we need to better understand why these men make the kind of commonsense they make about the social world. And how it is that the social world that for us is assumed — that we may be able to provide for our families — is not even imagined for some of these men, given the life experience that they’ve had. It was a chance to create a different kind of cultural analysis of men. I didn’t want to interpret what they do, but rather better interpret how they think, as a basis for some long-term, richer understanding of what they do. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the rest of my career, continuing to investigate about how and why black men think about different aspects of social reality.

JR: Let’s talk about media representations and how these might distort the true realities of how these men think and understand the world. What are the patterns of distortion you see?

k7684Alford A. Young, Jr.: I think the major image — and we see it time and time again, including in the recent police killings of black males in America — is that these are badly behaved men who are threatening to the rest of us. The turn is always made toward what kind of negative character they have. So if they got shot on Wednesday by the police, let’s think about whether they got high last week on Tuesday — or stole a cupcake two weeks ago. At some level, that has no bearing on what happened with them getting shot.

The public is so situated in thinking of these men as inherently bad people, and threatening. It would be a little more tolerable if they were bad people off unto themselves. The media images that have proliferated indicate that these are bad people who could cause you problems. But couple that with the well-established finding in research that the people who suffer the most threat at the hands of black men are other black men. It’s people like me who should be most concerned — if concerned at all! But yet, everybody else is very concerned.

I certainly would not dismiss or deny that there are men who have done terrible things to themselves and other people. In fact, in my conservations with them, they admit to having done terrible things to themselves and to other people. Oftentimes they have a rationale for why they did it; often it’s not very convincing to me. But to think they have no clue about why they did what they did is ridiculous. They have an idea. They are aware about the choices they made and aware of the consequences. These men are reflective at that level. So even introducing them as reflective is something novel — unfortunately novel — that I’ve tried to introduce into the conversation.

Another thing I’ve tried to introduce into the conversation is that these men are often under heavy surveillance. These men are often on street corners. It’s easy to watch them. These are not men who frequent private places; there are no country clubs in their neighborhoods. Everything they do socially is observed, whether that’s by police helicopters above or television news reporters. Public behavior is visible in ways that private behavior is not. And I think hip-hop culture has created more attention. We like to look at images of gangsters. Every other cable television show today is about police or crime or jail, some aspect of life that we don’t live but want to see. So many of the judgments are formed because we pay attention to these men. We don’t see these same kinds of problematic interactions with people who have more access to private space.

My third point is that they are not problematic every day of their lives. Some of these men may do something disturbing on a Monday, and then are trying to feed their kids on Tuesday.

JR: Could you recommend the work of other scholars whose work might complement yours and whose research might be valuable for people trying to deepen their understanding?

Alford A. Young, Jr.:  A fascinating work I read recently is Victor Rios’s book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. He’s a former gang member, and he’s dabbled in the informal economy. He’s lived all that he studies. What I find intriguing about his work is that he pulls out issues of difference and diversity within this population. He even looks at how he himself is similar and different from that community. He finds that there are differences among them that need to be highlighted. I find his work very illuminating in that sense.

Another of the important thinkers on issues of race and racial interaction is John Jackson, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s written a series of books about New York City, the first of which was Harlemworld. He’s an African-American social scientist who also observes how in some ways he’s similar and in some ways he’s different from the men and women he’s observed in New York. What I find particularly exciting about his work is how he brings class to the forefront. He looks at how people deal with their class status as a way of enhancing their way of negotiating space and relations with other people. So there’s the question about what it means to be legitimately black. The black middle class have claims about that; black lower-income people have claims about that; men and women have different claims about that. I like the way he unpacks that…. The theoretical implications of this work is that he uses these findings to look at issues of black solidarity and racial consciousness and uniform blackness, given the contradictions and tensions.

JR: Your forthcoming book is From the Edge of the Ghetto: African Americans and the World of Work. The Great Recession had more profound consequences for certain parts of the African-American community. Certain segments lost more household wealth relatively speaking, and unemployment has remained high. Could you shed some light on this recent history?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: I think there continues to be a slightly different recent history for black Americans, particularly lower-income black Americans, over the past two decades, in regard to work and work opportunity. Even in years when there were greater opportunities for lower-income Americans generally, black men in particular didn’t see any up-turn. This population — I put black men and women in together in the argument — has had a long-term status of being Americans, and a long-term status of embracing notions of opportunity and possibility and desire, that makes them slightly different than other folks. The sense that one can find a low-tier job and then find mobility — I don’t think that there are many black Americans who are fooled by that. There is a tendency, particularly among black men, to turn away from those jobs. And they look at other ethnic groups and immigrant populations taking and assuming those lower-tier jobs and really see no intergenerational mobility either — though the secret there is that many immigrant groups are highly educated and highly credentialed, and they can maneuver to new jobs when opportunities come about; whereas there are not many African Americans with college degrees driving cabs, in that same kind of situation. When I talk to black men, they often say that “washing the dishes for under-the-table wages is not going to put my kid in college.” They understand that. Men in particular are subject to a little more critical a position, because they are perceived as threatening and are the least likely to be hired.

The last 20 years have, again, been so different for this population. It’s a very different situation, a very different set of resources, a very different approach to work, that plays a role in their different outcomes. I don’t think that many labor economists and policymakers have fully embraced this conversation and reality — the very people who have been largely charged with trying to interpret what’s going on. I don’t think that African American desires and interests and how they rate opportunity have been well incorporated into their understanding. It’s just, “Here are the tables and graphs, and they are not moving. What is it about them?”

JR: Coming back to the media again. Are there certain themes, images or phraseology that you’d critique? Any tips for richer, better coverage?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: I’m so tired of the still-enduring notion of the “underclass.” It becomes a catch-word to mean so many things that we don’t say publicly anymore. We don’t talk about “racism” in ways that we might have 30 or 40 years ago. But “underclass” gets at that. We don’t say “lazy, shiftless” anymore about populations — at least not in mainstream media, though maybe in some of the comments online. But “underclass” does the work of conveying all that, without saying it. I still find “underclass” consistently used.

Many forms of violence or violent interaction are assumed to be gang-related, or gang-motivated. Not every group of five black males on a corner is a gang. But using that gang language is a form of already indicting people, prior to a deeper investigation of what’s truly going on. I understand what media has to do around sound bites and catch-phrases in terms of delivering information in an efficient manner. However, the residual effect has been very, very powerful. There needs to be a moment of stepping back and seeing what’s really going on. The reality is that people are not excited by mundane, everyday images. The bang-bang, shoot-’em-up black-male story still looms large. I don’t think that is easily resisted.

JR: What about other larger cultural forces, cross-currents and stories out there?

President Obama, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)Alford A. Young, Jr.: I’d point out the story of our president. Irrespective of what you feel about President Obama’s policies, he reflects what people have been calling for decades for young black men to do. Pick yourself up, straighten yourself up, and leave behind that which was delinquent or problematic alone, and go about it in the proper way. That’s Obama — middling in high school, got high, did all the things that so many of the men I study do. But he straightened himself out. The idea of the need for character transformation has indeed been the narrative that has been applied through media to these men. But given the character assassination Obama has suffered, it leaves quite literally the men I talked to saying, “This is nonsense. America doesn’t really care about character transformation.”

JR: So Obama’s rise has actually contributed to a certain cynicism for some?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: Right. It enhances their cynicism. So they already feel that there is not a complete portrait of who they are. And even when you see the bad-to-good image that can’t be crystallized any better than by our president, you still see negativity. The men I talk to say, “See it’s not about policy. It’s about the man’s character.”

See Young’s essay “The Black Masculinities of Barack Obama: Some Implications for African American Men,” published in the journal Daedalus.

JR: What about the “contacts with police” issue? Are  there things we don’t understand about the lived reality of these men?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: There’s a lot we don’t understand. From the side of these men, they are more than just criminals and people with bad intentions. They occupy a rich multiplicity of roles in their communities. They are brothers, fathers, sons, neighbors. But when it comes to engaging with the police, it’s reduced to just bad guy versus good guy. And I think that’s at the source of the tension.

I’ve directed research projects involving, or done direct interviews with, close to 500 black men over a 20-year period across 10 cities. It’s a rich database. They consistently say that the police have nothing to do with us except that we are the enemy and they are out to get us. Here I’m using my words, not theirs. It comes down to the fact that the public and private roles they have in life, all of the complexity, get suppressed, and they just feel like the scum of the Earth in the face of people who are almighty and all-powerful. Many report having been abused by police, having been hit in the head with flashlights, or what have you, and there’s no recourse for them. Some have said, “I did what I did. Should I have been arrested? Yes. But should I have been beaten? No. Should I have been smacked? No. Should I have been called the N-word? No.”

JR: Do you envision certain strategies for police to make this relationship better?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: I think community policing, if done effectively, can go a long way. It creates an image of an individual, and not just a police officer versus a community. Is it simple and easy? No. I think more structured engagement with communities is a good thing. These communities want the police to serve them, too. But they don’t want the police beating up their nephew. That’s the great challenge: Healthier community conversations.

My sister-in-law is a New York City police officer. I’ve had a lot of conversations with her and her colleagues on the force. There continues to be a lot of suspicion about black people and the black community, at least in the New York City police force, and I suspect others as well.

See Alford Young on engaging students about race and critical issues:

JR: Any final thoughts on social science trends that might be of interest to media covering these topics?

Alford A. Young, Jr.: The first area where I see a lot of promise is in separating out studies of poor communities from studies of poor people. There are a lot of different people in these poor communities — some who live there who aren’t poor, some who work there. What I’ve loved about some of the work done in the past 10 years is that we’re moving away from the study of so-called “underclass communities” that are composed of solely “underclass” people. Mario Small at Harvard and David Harding of U.C. Berkeley are among the scholars who have done this. They’ve introduced this idea that the community is the space where people come together. There may be a majority group, but other folks access space, too. It’s important to think about the different kinds of people that access communities.

Where I think Harding is in the lead, along with me, is to try to change the conversation about culture. For decades, the effort was to try to define the culture of low-income urban residents — the culture of black men, the culture of black women, the culture of poor people. The not-so-subtle turn for us has been to look at culture as a set of analytical tools to study people, and not as a label…. We are studying commonsense-making. That’s different than trying to study the culture of black men. We all make sense of our realities, no matter what community we come from. I like this turn in research. It means that we all operate in similar ways. There are things we all share.

For the academy, this new avenue has been very exciting. Now how do we turn those insights into a public conversation? I think there’s work to be done. We’ve discovered that in the academy over the past decade, now the translation work has to unfold. The challenge is that there is still a voyeurism among a broader readership about these communities. I think the audience, the readership, the broader public is still so consumed by the gang-banger, the drug dealer, the person being hunted down by the police. A great story will carry more weight with the public than a great piece of academic analysis. But the audience is implicated here, too. Some of the work that has to be done is getting the audience to respond better. But some of the work is making sure that the scholarship is translatable. A lot to be done.


Keywords: African-American, research chat, Ferguson, criminal justice, poverty

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