Black People : Black Genocide? Preliminary Thoughts on the Plight of America’s Poor Black Men

Keita Kenyatta

going above and beyond
Feb 7, 2004
"Not since slavery," notes former U.S. Secretary of Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan, "has so much calamity and ongoing catastrophe been visited on Black males" (Majors & Gordon, 1994:ix). The calamities and catastrophes to which Dr. Sullivan alludes fall disproportionately on poor black males, especially the poor young black men who inhabit our nation's ghettos. This has led many observers to characterize poor black men as an endangered species (see Gibbs, 1988).

Mortality data and other social indicators, discussed in this article, suggest that Dr. Sullivan's observation is fundamentally correct, particularly when it is applied to the plight of poor black men. The notion that these men comprise an endangered species is, however, a misleading and ultimately counterproductive one.' A more accurate view, though we can offer only tentative proof and argument at this juncture, is that such men may be victims of genocide. (We believe this claim holds for poor black women as well, but that takes us beyond the confines of this article.)

Those who identify poor black men as an endangered species do so out of concern, to raise an alarm and move society to compassionate action. The term is thus used with the best of intentions. Yet one can't help but note that the very notion of an endangered species of people is dehumanizing. Reference to any group or subgroup of people as a "species," let alone a species at risk, sets them apart, implicitly, as less than fully equal with other human beings. Such labels may inadvertently reinforce harmful stereotypes of poor black men, making it harder for outsiders to fully appreciate the scope of the pressures affecting their lives, pressures that we suggest may well reach genocidal proportions.

As a general matter, people are strongly inclined to deny genocide wherever and whenever it occurs, and to do so firmly, and even passionately, when the group at issue can be readily dehumanized (see Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990:7). This is clearly the case with the black men in our inner cities. It is a bitter irony that, for many in the larger white society, they comprise not only different species of men but a distinctly predatory group that is largely if not entirely responsible for their impoverished, violent, and shortened lives. Few care to invest time or money in the preservation of this endangered species.

It is to be expected, then, that the subject of black genocide has not been assessed in objective or dispassionate terms. White scholars have essentially ignored the issue, viewing the claim as a type of lunacy. An earlier black scholar named Patterson formally charged the United States with the genocide of blacks in the United Nations during the 1950s (see Patterson, 1970, 1971). Later black writers have tackled the issue (Weisbord, 1975; Welsing, 1974), but they have done so in a piecemeal fashion and have failed to ground their arguments in the intellectual tradition of genocide research.

There can be no doubt that many African Americans sincerely believe that the more marginal members of their community, if not indeed all black Americans, are actual or potential targets of genocide in America today. Some observers state these beliefs quite bluntly, decrying conspiratorial plans to annihilate the black race. The typical reaction to such accusations among white Americans, observed a Newsweek writer, is outright rejection of claims seen as nothing less than bizarre: "The ideological wagons are drawn into a circle with sensible mainstream American reason inside, threatened but valiant, and the crazy assault of black-American paranoia without" (Cary, 1992:23).

A recent article in U S New & World Report was entitled "The return of the paranoid style in American politics" (March 12, 1990:30). The aim of the article was revealed in the subtitle, which read in part, "why some blacks ... fear 'genocide.'" We find it significant that the term "paranoid" was used literally (without quotations) while the term "genocide" was used figuratively (within quotes). The implication is that one must be crazy—and more specifically, paranoid—to think that some black Americans are victims of genocide. We contend that it is entirely possible that the paranoia alluded to is figurative and the feared genocide is literal.

The issue of black genocide should not be dismissed as "mumbo jumbo," as occurred in a prominent Time magazine essay (White, 1990:20). Poor black men are subjected to many disabling conditions that restrict opportunity, inflict pain and suffering, and shorten lives. It is of course true that black males are not slated for the death camp and institutionalized slaughter. Nevertheless, the evidence, though still incomplete, strongly suggests that the plight of poor African American males goes beyond simple political oppression and indeed crosses the threshold of genocide.​

Ervin Staub. drawing on a wide-ranging study of the subject, defines genocide as "an attempt to exterminate a racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, or political group, either directly through murder or indirectly by creating conditions that lead to the group's destruction" (1989:8). Terms like "exterminate" harken back to the Holocaust and bring to mind Nazi death camps replete with ovens and gas chambers as settings of mass execution. But a careful reading of Staub's definition makes clear that the methods used to achieve genocide span direct violence (such as individual and mass murder) as well as indirect violence (primarily systematic deprivation).
The targets of genocide, Staub reminds us, are diverse and need only comprise a recognizable social group. Critically, the key concept at the core of the notion of genocide—destruction of a group—is not limited to physical violence. As Staub explains:
The essence of evil is the destruction of human beings. This includes not only killing but creation of conditions that materially or psychologically destroy or diminish people's dignity, happiness, and capacity to fulfill basic material needs. (Staub, 1989:25)​
The notion that genocide need not entail physical violence is reinforced by Lemkin, who coined the term genocide—from the Greek work genos (race or tribe) and the Latin cide (kill)—and helped draft the United Nations Genocide Convention. At the heart of genocide, Lemkin writes, is "the destruction of the essential foundations of the life" of the group (see Kuper, 1985:9). This means that the systematic degradation of a group, with resulting psychological and material impoverishment, is an instance of genocide when it results in the widespread destruction of human lives. Thus, creating conditions in which a group will be destroyed, and not only direct violence against such a group, is a form of genocide.

The image many people have of genocide is limited to extreme and direct violence, perhaps best exemplified in the Nazi Holocaust. This image is misleading. The Nazi Holocaust represents the extreme or limiting case of genocide, not the paradigm, just as a rape-murder-disembowelment represents the extreme or limiting case of murder, not the paradigm of murder. The touchstone consideration in defining genocide is the destruction of the group. This means that mere discrimination or even oppression is not enough to qualify as genocide. Actions or conditions must threaten or undermine the very existence of the group in question.

Several instances of man-made famine have resulted in genocide. These famines are man-made in the sense that they were created or tolerated as a matter of policy. The indirect violence of policies that allow the ravages of famine "combines advantages—for the perpetrators—of costing very little while at the same time putting physical distance between them and the victims" (Jonassohn, 1992:23; see also Smith, 1987:35). If creating or tolerating a famine is genocidal, there is no reason, in principle, why it is not genocidal to create or tolerate multiple destructive life conditions—including high infant mortality, limited access to health care, crushing poverty, inadequate schools, and crime-racked neighborhoods that are also likely to contain toxic waste—all conditions that apply to the daily existence of poor black Americans (see, Reiman, 1995).2

An obvious case of indirect genocide occurs when the perpetrator creates a condition (such as famine) that destroys a group (through starvation) The Irish potato famine of the nine-teenth century comes readily to mind. Policies set in England resulted in shortages of food in Ireland; hunger, aided by diseases that run rampant in malnourished groups, termin RATES AND BODY COUNTS

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