'Post' Series Looks at Lives of Black Men in America
LYNN NEARY, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.
There's some 18 million black men living in the United States today. It's a population that's been subject to as many studies as stereotypes, and it is also the focus of a recent Washington Post series called Being a Black Man. The series, which will run through the end of the year, combines profile pieces about African-American men in the Washington area with a sophisticated statistical analysis of black men across the country.
The Post collaborated with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University on a nationwide poll. The newspaper surveyed 2,864 people, almost half of whom were black men. They asked respondents to comment on their backgrounds, their health, their relationships to family and friends, and their hopes for the future.
Later in this hour, Russia says it killed the Chechen terrorist leader responsible for hundreds of Russian deaths. But first, being a black man in modern America. We want to hear from you, particularly from black men. Tell us your stories and your observations. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org. And to find a link to the articles in the series, you can visit our Web site at npr.org.
Here to discuss the poll and the series and to help answer the question what does it mean to be a black man in America today are Kevin Merida and Steven Holmes. Kevin Merida is an associate editor at The Washington Post, and Steven Holmes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on The New York Times series How Race Is Lived in America, is now the deputy national editor for social policy at the Washington Post. And they both join us here in studio 3A. Thanks to both of you for being with us.
Mr. STEVEN HOLMES (Deputy National Editor for Social Policy, The Washington Post): Thank you, Lynn.
Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Associate Editor, The Washington Post): Pleasure to be here.
NEARY: Steven, let me ask you, first of all, just how this idea for this series came about in the first place.
Mr. HOLMES: Well, I actually should defer to Kevin on that.
Mr. HOLMES: I've been with he Post for about a year, and this idea predated me, so I should defer to him.
Mr. MERIDA: It was out of the growth of many conversations. Really, the origins were maybe five or six years ago, and the first effort didn't quite get off the ground. There was 9/11, and everybody was - it kind of got fragmented. But right before the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March, Darryl Fears -who's a national reporter who covers race relations - and I were having lunch, and he was really just asking the question what's happened in 10 years since that march of black men? This was, of course, in 2005, the 10th anniversary of the 1995 Million Man March.
And we began having a series of informal conversations that he really convened - I participated in and many others did, sometimes off-campus, sometimes at our newspaper, late nights. And it really kind of gathered momentum informally in the paper and got embraced by our managing editor Phil Bennett and became a project.
NEARY: Obviously, if you were at the beginning, at least, sort of thinking of pegging it to the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March, that would be one reason. But what's another reason for focusing, specifically, on African-American men as opposed to African-Americans in general?
Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that historically, black men have kind of had an image in this country - this goes back to slavery. They certainly were the manpower, helped in the early formations of the country. There's been kind of a fear and fascination, as some experts have said, with black men. I mean, on the one hand now, you have, you know, black men are embraced for their style and their, you know, panache. And lots of other things are positive, and also they're very scary to a lot of people in this country.
There have been some tremendous success stories in this country, and there have also been some failures. And we wanted to kind of look at this population group as really a metaphor for the rest of the country, I mean, where you have the glass half full and half empty, simultaneously.
NEARY: Yeah, I noticed - and both of you have made a comment on this - I noticed in reading the articles that it was - there's so many contradictions when you're talking about black men, in the sense that - for instance, I think a couple of men talked about the fact that they were always told you have to be better, you have to work harder, you have to be better, or you're a black man and people are going to have a negative opinion of you.
And some people said that made them work harder and be better, but others said that's a negative message, that they were then left with this sort of legacy of always thinking people are looking at them in a negative way.
Mr. HOLMES: Well, you see the contradictions that you refer to quite clearly in the poll that we took. I mean, you see throughout the poll, it's - there were times when I was looking at the results, and I'm thinking are we talking to two different populations here, because there just seemed to be so many splits, even within the same individuals. Like, for example, we didn't find any group that were - was harder on black men than black men themselves.
NEARY: Yeah, that was very interesting.
Mr. HOLMES: You know, the - we asked the question, for example, who do you blame for the problems of black men? Do you - is it what black men have failed to do? Or is it what white society has done to them? And 59 percent of black men in the poll said it was black male failures of to do for themselves, and only 23 percent said it was actually white society.
But at the same time, then you would ask them - or we would ask them, is the economic system stacked against black men or is it fair to everyone? And 55 percent of black said the economic system is stacked against them, and that was the largest percentage of any of the groups that we polled.
So at the same - you see these kinds of contradictions. So who's - you ask a lot of black men, who's really at fault for their particular situation, and they basically say both ourselves and society at large.
NEARY: Let me ask you about how that poll - about that poll. How did you develop the poll? How did you decide what questions to ask? I mean, that's a complex process to get into, I know.
Mr. HOLMES: And it took a long time...
MR. HOLMES: ...and we had a lot of input. I mean, Kevin sat in on a lot of meetings with Rich Morin - who was the polling director at the paper - and myself and other people just hashing out, basically, what sort of topic areas we wanted to talk about, and then trying to develop questions from those particular topic areas.
I mean, we wanted to talk about - and there were things that we decided not to do as much, like political affiliation. We did one question on that, but we didn't really explore that very heavily.
But we developed a set of questions - a questionnaire. We had a consultant, Michael Dawson, who is a noted social scientist at the University of Chicago. We had him look at our questions and see if they were legitimate, if they made sense. We had a lot of input from the Kaiser Foundation. We tested it. We - it took quite a number of months to actually pull this thing together.
NEARY: We are talking about The Washington Post series on what it means to be a black man in America. My guests are Kevin Merida, associate editor at The Washington Post, and Steven Holmes, deputy national editor for social policy at the Washington Post. If you would like to join the discussion, if you have any questions, give us a call, 800-989-TALK. And we are going to take a call now from Anthony in Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Anthony. Are you there?
ANTHONY (Caller): Hello? Yes.
NEARY: Yes, go ahead.
ANTHONY: Hi, how are you?
NEARY: Good, thanks.
ANTHONY: Yes, I'm a black male who - glad to say I've lived on the East Coast in Washington, D.C., New York, and now I reside in Louisville, Kentucky. And, you know, people think Kentucky, you're standing there in the middle of corn patch with no shoes on and this or that. And, you know, all those stereotypes, which go back to a black male. You know, we're so much a victim of our own stereotypes that we can't move forward. At what point do we become just a man, as opposed to a black male? I feel like we're painting ourselves as victims. We're qualifying everything that we do - whether positively or negatively or whatever - as, you know, this whole gloss of blackness.
You know, the whole point of integration is to do just that - is to integrate. But we take so many steps to keep ourselves separate from the norm. And, you know, and as you say, everybody wants to be special in this and that. But one thing I'm trying to teach my son, who's another black male, is you know, you don't need to be just a black male. You don't need to be just a male. You can be a world player. You can be anything that you want to be, but first you have to believe it.
And so many times, when you have these surveys and all these other kinds of things, it really comes down to the self - they don't believe it, so how can anybody else believe it?
NEARY: All right, Anthony, I'm going to ask our guests…
ANTHONY: Okay, I'm done.
NEARY: …to respond to the points that you've made. First of all, Kevin.
Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think we all have many identities. I mean, I think it's possible to be a black man and that be part of your identity. And, in my case, I'm a journalist, too. That's another part of my identity - a father. You might be a recreational basketball player. I think all population sub-groups have multiple identities.
A case in point there - we took a group photo that ran on the first installment of the series, and the idea was to take a magazine-style portrait. And we brought together ten black men - different walks of life. We had a guy who had been in prison for 18 years. We had Gilbert Arenas, an NBA All-Star for the Washington Wizards. We had Colin Powell. We had a number of people throughout life.
One of the gentlemen was Howard Key(ph). If you were to see him standing up and you just see him, maybe in his neighborhood - he has dreadlocks, he is a martial arts expert, he's a sailor, and he also happens to be a NASA engineer who designs space rockets. And, so he's many different things and he's very much a black man.
And so, I think that that's part of the experience of this country is that people can embrace different identities.
NEARY: You know, did you think about this as you were beginning the series, though, that you might get these kinds of criticisms or people saying just the very fact that you're doing something on being a black man, you're stereotyping the black man?
Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that one of the things we thought about was, why black men?
Mr. MERIDA: And that's a good question. I think it's part of the exploration. I think all human beings deserve exploration. I think that's how we understand each other. I mean, I would love to read - we write about farmers or corporate executives, and everybody has their own kind of identity - working moms.
A couple of people wrote in in some of our Web chats, well, what about the white man? What about doing a series on being a white man? I think that would be a fascinating series. I really do. Because I think that everybody has a way of internalizing who they are, and I think that's how we help to understand each other, to really bore into that. And part of our intent was to really get people to understand the experiences of black men - how they see the world from their eyes.
NEARY: Did you get any black women writing in saying what about black women?
Mr. HOLMES: We did. We did. There's no doubt about that.
NEARY: We're going to continue this discussion after a short break, so hold whatever thoughts you have there, Steve, and we'll be back.
We're talking about a series in The Washington Post called Being a Black Man, and we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. I'm Lynn Neary, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking about what it means to be a black man in America. A series in The Washington Post looks at that issue, and we're joined by two of the editors behind the series. Kevin Merida is an associate editor at The Washington Post, and Steven Holmes is the deputy national editor for social policy at the paper.
You're invited to join the discussion. We especially want to hear your experiences as a black man in America. Give us a call - 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
And before that break, Steve Holmes, we were talking about, I guess, the danger of stereotypes when you enter into a topic like this, and you were saying, some of the things that you learned from the polling about that.
Mr. HOLMES: Well, one of the things I found most interesting in the poll was how many of these stereotypes that, sort of, exist in popular culture, or certainly exist in the popular mind about black men are internalized and believed by black men themselves.
Like, for example, we asked the question, do you feel that black men put too much or too little emphasis on sports? And 54 percent of black men felt that black men put too much emphasis on sports. And, again, that's larger than any other group. That's larger than what white men feel about black men or white women feel about black men.
We also asked, do you feel that black men put too much or too little emphasis on sex? And 60 percent of black men said that black men put too much emphasis on sex. Now, these are two stereotypes that exist in the culture, and certainly, our polling results show that they've been embraced by black men. For better or worse, they certainly are holding tight to those stereotypes.
NEARY: And I think - I don't know if the poll numbers held up - but I remember an anecdote that seemed to reflect the fact that some black men also believe the stereotype that black men are more likely to hurt you, or black men are more likely to - you're more likely to be victimized in a crime by a black man.
Mr. HOLMES: Well, our polling did show black men reporting being victims of violent crime at much higher levels than any other group. And I feel that that helps - or contributed to - kind of, one of the negative images that black men have of each other. Because, generally, crime occurs within a racial group, not across racial lines. And if you have a high number of black men reporting being victims of violent crime, chances are the perpetrator of that crime was another black man.
NEARY: But there was one story in particular. There was a guy who says he was in a neighborhood, and he put down the locks on his car when he saw another black man approaching him and then that caused him - the man in the car who put the lock down - felt conflicted about what he had done, about the whole situation.
Mr. MERIDA: Yes, the guy who was, I guess, outside started yelling at the guy inside and saying, what are you doing, I mean. And the guy inside, who was a Brown University official - he felt really bad about that because what he had internalized was the image. And it wasn't directed - his response wasn't directed, as he later told us - at this one individual black man, but about the image that he had internalized, that maybe, here it is at night at a dark stoplight - this reflexive action.
Jesse Jackson, ironically, told a tale that got him in a lot of hot water many years ago about being in the streets of Chicago, and if you see a group of young black men coming toward him and being afraid. And that, you know, caused a lot of controversy at the time, but that is also another real reflection of how people see many of the young black men that are out there, which probably is the group that is most of concern to many people.
NEARY: Let's take a call now from Anthony, and he is calling from Akron, Ohio. Hi, Anthony.
ANTHONY (Caller): Hello and thank you for taking my…I'm an independent producer and a father, and one of the things that I've experienced is that we all are on - the black man is on an economic cross, and we've been quarantined and our fundamental - the things that matter - when we take it to society, they make it of no matter at all, and that's our feelings and experience.
And I believe that when the world devalues the black man, they rob themselves of the true gifts from those people. And I've been in the - I've just walked through the parking lot, believe it or not, and a white person hit down, you know, hit down the latch and locked the door. And I actually had a very nice song on my mind, thinking about a love, you know. And I was just thinking, boy, you know, you just robbed yourself of a positive experience.
And I just hope that the black men would take the lessons of the past, like in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we would spend money 30 to 100 times amongst ourselves before it left our community, so that we can reintegrate. Because we have integrated to the point of disintegrating everything that matters to us…
NEARY: All right, Anthony, thanks so much for your call. I just want to get our guests to respond to your thoughts. Steve Holmes.
Mr. HOLMES: Well, what the gentle tone of the call - as opposed to the specifics - just reminds me of is one of the findings in the poll shows that black men crave respect, you know, and crave respect much more than virtually any other group.
Seventy-six percent of the black men in our survey said being respected by others is very important to them. That compares to 59 percent of white men. And my take on that is that white men don't crave this respect because they feel they have it already, whereas black men feel they don't have it and they really crave it.
One other thing, if I can just be real quick - ideas that that call reminded me of is that the poll just showed black men to be very ambitious - much more ambitious than - at least expressed ambition - than anybody else.
Seventy-six percent of the black male respondents said that being successful in a career was very important to them. That was way above anybody else. And it just leads me to believe that if there's reasons why black men don't make it, lack of ambition isn't one of them.
NEARY: Yeah. On that question of respect, another anecdote that I just remembered - and you can maybe expand upon it a little bit more. It was a man who was very high up - had a very high position in a university. And he talked about the fact that, you know, if people were within 200 feet of his office, they practically genuflected, but that on the street, he would see some of the same people - some of his colleagues - would walk right past him, wouldn't even recognize him on the street.
Mr. MERIDA: Well, that goes back to the age-old kind of problem of being invisible. And, you know, obviously, Ralph Ellison wrote a very famous novel, Invisible Man, back in the 50's. And many black men, even today - as this guy said, he's a very high-up official - still feel invisible despite their achievements.
Marc Morial, who is the head of the Urban League, was telling me - we were having breakfast over - about how when he's out at the mall and someplace on the weekends and dressed down - not dressed in his customary, you know, impeccable suits that he wears, but in sweat pants and a baseball cap - that how the sense that he's viewed differently, and then how that permeates his psyche.
And so, I think that the idea of invisibility is - and it kind of segues back to Steve's point about respect and our findings - is that invisibility is a very big thing to black men.
NEARY: Yeah. We're talking about the Washington Post series on what it means to be a black man in America. If you'd like to join our discussion, you can send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us at 800-989-8255. Let's take a call now from Quinton(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Quinton.
QUINTON (Caller): Yes, my name is Quinton. I'm an African-American male in San Antonio, Texas. And I just wanted to ask if the issue was addressed about socio-economic status. I'm in my 30's, and I come from a middle class background, and I grew up mostly in white or non-black areas. And I've developed my culture and my family - that we are kind of different, and we're sometimes viewed as being bugy(ph) or Oreo's or what-not.
But we are very proud, and I think that we have - our culture is very strong and growing, and that I meet many others as myself that fit into this group, but yet we are looked down upon. And when it comes to surveys like what it means to be black or African-American, that we are not really fitted in or looked at as like a freak of nature or whatnot.
I just wanted to know if you had addressed this issue on the African-American middleclass.
NEARY: Steve Holmes?
Mr. HOLMES: Well, as far as the survey goes, I mean, our survey cut across all economic lines, all age lines, and educational lines. So we did not try and exclude middleclass or upper class black - one of the things I find most interesting in discussions when it comes to black men is that when people think of black men and talk about black men, they only talk about young black men. It's as if you're a black man - every black man dies at the age of 25. But there's a whole world of black men out there who aren't young, who don't live in cities, who don't wear their jeans down on their behinds and they're just guys, you know?
But that's not the image that many people think of when they think of black men.
Mr. HOLMES: I also would just add that I think that we have to recognize that the world has really changed, I mean, even as it relates to young, black men. I mean, we have a couple of young black men quoted in our stories - I mean, young black men now are having the kind of experiences - they're studying abroad.
I had talked to the chancellor at North Carolina A&T University. We talked about how many abroad programs they have, and this is a historically black college. Kids are going - my own sons growing up in the suburbs have been to, like, probably a dozen bar mitzvahs among them. I've never been invited to a bar mitzvah and I'm 49 years old. I didn't have that opportunity growing up.
And so I think that there's a lot more experiences that kids are having. And this is kind of reflects what this caller is talking about; as more and more African-American families have moved into suburbs they have really broadened their reach.
NEARY: Well, you know, again, this - and thanks so much for calling Quinton -this gets back to what we talked about earlier, the contradictions inherent in this whole topic. On the one hand, obviously, many, many strides have been made. There's a big middle class now of black Americans. And yet, at the same time, so many black men incarcerated, so many Black men dying at a young age from violence. And, in fact, you weren't able to include in your poll the black men who are in prison.
Mr. MERIDA: No, we didn't. That's one of the - I hate to call it a shortcoming, but it was one of the things that we couldn't get around. It's that it's virtually impossible to do polling of people who are incarcerated. So that segment of black men - and I guess white men and white women and black women as well - who are in prison, we just did not poll. So we don't have any data on them.
NEARY: And presumably would've - it would've skewed things in a different direction perhaps, do you think, or is there any way of knowing that?
Mr. MERIDA: Yeah. There's no way of knowing. It's a large population. It's 800,000, you know, incarcerated. But, you know, even with that I think that we, you know, were certainly planning on doing some reporting independently of that and then try to get at that population and to get at the population that are on the margins.
I mean, we're not the only people who are searching for kind of a population that's disappeared. I mean, many researchers who do studies, on young African-American men especially, find that they're really some people who've kind of dropped out of society. I mean, school systems can't even track kids who have dropped out. A lot of people are outside the job market and there's a great population of people out in this country that we just don't know what they're doing.
NEARY: We're talking about being a black man in America, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Mr. HOLMES: Yeah. I just want to make one quick point about the incarcerated. It is a large population, but we shouldn't overstate it; it's only six percent of black men. There's this view that you see in stories or in studies, 30-35 percent of black men are incarcerated, that's a misreading of the statistics.
It's about 30 percent of black men have, at some point in their lives, either been on parole or in prison or on probation. But it's not 30 percent of black men currently being incarcerated.
NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Elaine(ph). And Elaine is calling from Oakland, California. Hi, Elaine.
ELAINE (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. And I just wanted to speak from the perspective of a mother, woman, who's raised a young black man whom I'm very, very proud of. He is about to become a senior in college. He sort of defied a lot of the odds that I think you've just spoken about.
And I just wanted to share that, you know, it's - you know the song - It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp, but it's hard out here for a young black man. I've watched my son, you know, through the years just have to come up against all sorts of, you know, profiling techniques and eschewed looks on the street and just sort of the treatment that a lot of people will give young black men, just not looking at them as full human beings.
I have to say that I raised my son as an endangered species. I protected the habitat, I kept away the predators and I was just vigilant in making sure that, you know, his educational experiences would be supportive of who he is, that he has the opportunity to intermingle, you know, in all spheres of society and that he just get reinforced daily, you know, by my constant love and support of him as who he is.
And, you know, I think that it's paid off. But I also want to say to your guest and to your listeners that there's opportunities all the time for people who interact with young black men on the street to look them in the eye and just smile at them. So many of these young kids are walking around so defensive, so expecting to be profiled, so expecting to feared, you know, to cause fear.
And if you look in their eyes, they're just kids often. And often, you know, I notice that people just walk in fear of them and I make a point of making eye contact with them and smiling. You'll get a smile back. And it's just giving them a sense of their own humanity.
NEARY: Elaine, thanks so much for that perspective.
NEARY: Appreciate it. And it reminds me also of - I should say that as part of this series, there's a survey. There are also profiles of some young black men and older black men as well. And Elaine's story reminds me of the story about the young boy whose mother, it sounds like, is watching him as a hawk as well. I forget his name - I think it's Marcus.
You know, his parents are trying to - you know, almost doing the same thing. Raising him like he's an endangered species in the sense that they just want to make sure that he gets everything that he needs to, you know, head out into the world.
Mr. MERIDA: Well, Marcus's case, the story that you refer to, Lynn, I mean, they live in Stafford, Virginia, which has a population of 15 percent black. I mean, they have their kid, Marcus, in private school, he had skiing trips once a year, he's in cotillions, he's doing a lot of things that a lot of kids of his generation, and previous generations, wouldn't have had the opportunities for.
So he's had a lot of opportunities, and yet his parents are still worried that, at some point, he will come face-to-face with this notion that the previous caller did. That somehow he will look scary to somebody just because of who he is.
And I think that gets an image. I mean, I think our profession has to take some responsibility for that. The images created not just newspapers and TV and radio, but the images that are on videos and the movies. And the idea of seeing young black men as thugs and gangsters is quite widespread.
NEARY: All right. I want to take up that question of the media's role in all this when we come back from a break.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Here are some of today's NPR News headlines.
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And in a few minutes, the life and reported death today of a feared terrorist in Russia. But right now, being a black man in America.
We're talking to Kevin Merida, associate editor at The Washington Post, and Steven Holmes, deputy national editor for social policy at the paper. Their series on being a black man runs through the end of the year. We have a link to that series, by the way, at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.
Now before the break, Steve, we were talking about - you mentioned, Kevin, that the media has perhaps contributed to stereotypes about black men. And I was wondering - either one of you can answer this - if, to some degree, is that's part of the purpose of this series, to try and offset those kinds of stereotypes, to try and bring things more into perspective from the media's perspective?
Mr. HOLMES: Yes, I think that is one of the purposes of the series is to try and give a whole view of black men and not just a slice of the lives of black men and of the images of black men.
I think image is really one of the major points that we're trying to make. What is the image of black men and what's the reality? And try and talk about that.
If I could mention one other thing, again, from the poll about this idea of image and, again, about how much black men have sort of absorbed the image. One of the questions that we asked was, do we think black men put too little or too much emphasis on maintaining a tough image?
And with black men themselves, over more than anybody else, felt that black men put too much of an emphasis on maintaining this kind of macho, tough image.
NEARY: Did you think coming away from both the stories that you heard and the poll that black men are too hard on themselves?
Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that - yeah, that's a great question. Great question, Lynn. Yeah, I think in some ways maybe so. But I think that it's not surprising. I think that if you were to ask whether it was women, Latinos, I think who better to critique one's own group than one's own self? So I think that it's not so surprising that you would have that.
I think there also in racial - we know in racial polling that there's a little reticence sometimes for people to with candor in racial polling. So you might normally expect someone not to say something too detrimental to another group as in great of numbers as maybe they actually feel.
Mr. HUGHES: But, Lynn, at the same time, you know, I don't want to leave the impression that this whole poll presented black men in a very negative light. I mean, there was lots of stuff sprinkled throughout this poll that really - some might even say - was surprisingly positive things to say about black men.
We asked how often they pray and the percentage of black men who pray once a day was higher than any other group except black women. It is true that black men were not - as fathers, were not as present to the extent that others were. But those fathers who were in the home tended to be much more involved in their child's upbringing.
In fact, there was one real interesting statistic. We asked black men and white men how often they either kissed, hugged or told their child that they love them. Did they do it once a day or once a week? And 54 percent of black men said they did that at least once a day, 48 percent of white men said they did that.
Mr. MERIDA: And just to add to that, I mean, I think six in ten is the correct figure, Steve, said it's a good time to be a black man. So the majority of black men in this country think that this is a great time to be a black man.
NEARY: Oh, that's good. Kenneth(ph) in San Francisco. Let's take a call. Hello, Kenneth.
KENNETH (Caller): Hi, hello. Thank you for taking my call.
NEARY: Go ahead.
KENNETH: You know, I noticed that in the polling - I'm sorry I didn't get to see the series in the Washington paper - but I grew up in a white suburb of San Francisco and live there now, though I've lived other places in between.
And I found that the contradictions that they talked about that might be in the study I think are valid because we live them every day. For example, you're talking about the candor that some of the men in the survey exhibited. And I found, on a one to one basis, as black men we're very honest with one another. But we seem to lose that in a group setting.
And I found that I have very close relationships with black males on a one to one basis but I don't feel so much a part of the group as the group gets larger. And I wonder if maybe your guests could address that.
Is there - do we lose some intimacy, do we lose some honesty, when we get in a group setting?
MERIDA: Well, I think that's a great point the caller's making. I think there is a certain bravado that gets in and people don't want to get typed and it may get back to wanting to have a certain image among your peer group.
But one fascinating thing, we did a story about a hair stylist by the name of Elias Fishburne(ph), a very skinny black man who happened to be gay. And almost his entire story played against type.
I mean, he was in jail, picked up because of a wrongful identity as a fugitive and through the bureaucratic system, the ineptness of the system, spent 37 days in jail.
But the fascinating thing was that the stereotype would probably say here's a gay hairstylist who would have a hard time in jail. And he was able to bond and connect with the other inmates, some of them drug dealers and more serious crimes. He braided hair. He became very popular.
And he said himself that it was very eye-opening, the connections he made in jail and that, in fact, he had more real conversations in jail with the brothers in jail, as he put it, than he did out on the street, and that he said some of the same people would apologize if they bumped into you. And out on the street, you know, someone bumps into you in a club and there's a fight. But in jail, there were very meaningful conversations.
HOLMES: Lynn, at the same time, I think one of the, to me, most troubling aspect of the poll was this unwillingness expressed by black men to form close friends. I mean, we asked a question how important is it to you to have lots of close friends. And 26 percent of black men in our survey say it was very important but 45 percent of white men did.
So there was a huge disparity in terms of this desire, at least expressed desire or importance of having friendships.
NEARY: What about white, I mean black women's attitudes towards black men? What did you learn there?
HOLMES: Well, we learned that black women were much more sympathetic towards the plight or the situation of black men than I think is commonly believed. We - again, this is one of the stereotypes that, you know, there's these industrious black women out there who think black - that brothers are nothing but, you know, trifling.
And yet we did find that black women in general felt that black men had a harder time in society, that were discriminated against more. Although they did - it was interesting. They did say - we asked them is one of the reasons, what's one of the reasons why more black women are getting ahead than black men? And overwhelming the women said because the women work harder.
NEARY: One other question about - we've talked about some economic differences. What about skin color, even within the black community? Were there differences? Did that come up at all?
HOLMES: We - that's not - no, we didn't ask that question, so that particular dynamic did not come up. What did come up were differences within, amongst black men with regard to education levels and income levels in which you found that the group that was the hardest on black men tended to be higher education, higher educated men and higher income levels.
But we didn't ask about skin color.
NEARY: Okay. Let's see if we can get one more call in here. Let's see, Steve in San Diego, California.
STEVE (Caller): Hi. How are you guys doing?
NEARY: Good, thanks.
STEVE: Thanks for taking my call. I just want to ask about an interesting phenomena that I find. I come from a very large family where the patriarch is actually a well-respected physician. And we all have Master's degrees or higher.
And I find that there's a sense of isolation that develops with the higher income. Black families, I find myself, the only time I see black people is when I see my family. And it makes it very hard for dating.
And I'm wondering if that's a trend that you're seeing and what black men - in my situation, I currently own my own business. And I don't think I've dated an African-American woman in the last 10 years. Do you see this as a trend? And what can you do about this?
MERIDA: Well, that's a fascinating thing. Maybe we need to go out and do your story.
HOLMES: Or introduce him to my daughter.
STEVE: Yeah, it's just very interesting because, you know, I socialize in a white community. Most of my business relationships are with white people. And I want to use the word uncomfortable, but I know that's kind of a scary word to use. But I get uncomfortable when I'm with a large group of lower-income or lower-educated black people. And I just find that that's something that I'm trying to fix in myself.
Do you see this as a trend?
MERIDA: Well, I think that the class gap, that's happening - I mean, right here in Prince Georges County, Maryland, which is probably a great laboratory for exploring that, where you have a lot of, you know, you have low-income kind of clashing with upper-income folks, is one of the most, you know, richest, well-educated majority black counties in the country.
But I think that you see this. I mean - and it's not just one-way. I mean, it's two-way, because among lower-income, you often hear the distrust that people think that those who succeed think they're better than - they don't come back into the community. They don't do anything. And so the discomfort goes both ways.
But I think that there's - there's certainly possibilities to intermingle. So I would urge the caller to, you know, get out there and, you know, mix it up.
HOLMES: The trend is actually somewhat different than the caller's experience, although I'm not doubting the caller's experience. The trend that you do see more so today is black women achieving and kind of leaving more and more black men behind. I think that's been documented in a lot of places.
NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call. Let me just - let me just end with a sort of personal thought that the listener reminded me of.
I happen to live in an integrated area, a neighborhood of Washington. And on my block there's a black judge, there's a black preacher, there's a black fireman, there's a black policeman. I mean, and - but I don't think that those men really do interact that much with, you know, some of the guys who are maybe five or six blocks away who - and, you know, I've read things that say the old, you know, that before integration the black neighborhood had all those people within a block or two of each other and so those men could be role models for the guys that didn't have parents or weren't educated, didn't have money. And I'm wondering if that really is happening now. And is that part of what you want to see happening with the black man in America?
MERIDA: Well, there's no question what you speak of, Lynn. I mean, and we have neighborhoods now that - you know, we had those homogenous neighborhoods back where there were businesses located in black communities.
And so you do see a kind of an almost a nostalgic, you know, wishfulness for the days of segregation, almost, on the part of some, just because of the fact of the way communities are.
But, you know, there are some low-income neighborhoods - I've done some reporting - in where they never see anyone go to work at all. I mean, they never see anyone wear a suit. And that's the flip side of it.
I mean we have really a bifurcated country along class lines in many respects.
NEARY: All right. Well, thanks to both of you for joining us.
HOLMES: It's a pleasure.
MERIDA: Thank you.
NEARY: It's an interesting series. And I want to remind our listeners that they can view some of the series on our Web site, npr.org. Kevin Merida is an associate editor at The Washington Post. And he is coordinating the Being a Black Man series for the paper.
And Steven Holmes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on The New York Times series, How Race is Lived in America, is the deputy national editor for social policy at The Washington Post. And he worked with Harvard University -Harvard University, and the Kaiser Family Foundation on the African-American men survey.
And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.