Broken Dreams And Financial Illusions: The Secret Depression Of Black Men

by Marcus Bright, Ph.D.

There is a secret depression that is rooted in economics that many Black men battle. It is hidden underneath an assortment of layers including an exaggerated bravado, drug and alcohol abuse, misdirected anger, and other forms of destructive behavior. Fantastical illlusions are also a tool that is deployed to cope with the humbling realities of an often marginalized existence.

The “Bow Wow Challenge” that took over social media earlier in the month was a reflection of a daily pattern of illusions for many. Some aspect of Bow Wow fronting like he was traveling on a private plane instead of his actual reality of flying coach on a commercial airline is frequently in operation for Black people in this country.

For all of the trips, fancy purses, and Jordan-brand shoes the truth is that the vast majority of us are barely scraping by. Credit, celebrities, and trinkets have given many of us the illusion that we are doing much better economically than we actually are. We have been bamboozled by Facebook likes, hoodwinked by Instagram comments, and led astray by Twitter retweets. Social media has a tendency to tell you a lot of things that aren’t true.

The data suggest that the majority of African Americans are not in a great place financially. A prime example of this is a finding from the “The Color of Wealth in Boston” report that found that the median net worth of White households in Boston is $247,500 while the median net worth of Black households is $8.

The average net worth of a single Black woman with a bachelor’s degree is $-11,000 and the median wealth of a single Black woman without a bachelor’s degree is $0 according to a research brief entitled “Women, Race, and Wealth” by Khaing Zaw, Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Anne Price, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity, Jr. This underscores the sad reality that getting a college degree may actually be a hindrance in some cases to a person’s wealth position because of the frequent need to go into large amounts of debt in order to obtain higher education.

Most of the racial wealth gaps that exist are a result of the lack of intergenerational wealth transfers available for Black families based on a host of different reasons ranging from Federal Housing Administration policy, slavery, Jim Crowe laws, employment discrimination, denial of access to capital, and the list goes on and on.

The larger point in citing these figures is that we are economically struggling because we began a figurative 100 meter dash 50 meters behind. There is an economic disadvantage for Blacks that is built into the fabric of American society. We don’t need to beat ourselves up in a desire to keep with “the Joneses”. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for excellence in every realm, but it does mean that killing yourself to try to keep up with images that may or may not be real will only lead to a life of frustration.

Black men are particularly susceptible to this kind of unhealthy pressure and stress. As they have grown into adulthood, they have seen many of their childhood dreams deferred. Jay Z articulated this in his song Izzo (H.O.V.A.) when he said “I’ve seen hoop dreams deflate like a true fiend’s weight.” You will frequently see people holding onto their dreams of being rap stars or NBA players well into their 30s or even 40s. It is a good thing in one sense to hold on to your dream, but the limited number of slots in those areas suggests that many of these dreams will eventually be shattered.

The lack of a viable “Plan B” in the form of education, job training, or entrepreneurial expertise stymies some from progression. Others have gone and acquired credentials, but still seem to be locked out of gainful economic opportunity. When viable economic options are taken off of the table, then people are more apt to turn to criminal endeavors to meet immediate survival needs for them and their families.

Black men are the most unemployed and incarcerated group in the country per capita. The jobless rate for Black men between ages of 20 and 34 in many cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore is above 45% according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The psychological impact on men who haven’t been able to overcome the reality of the labor market is a story that is seldom told. Many are suffering from broken dreams and delusions of grandeur that have not been fulfilled. An argument can be made that many Black men have been suffering from a secret depression for years as a result of this financial crunch. A great deal of it probably has its roots in an economic struggle.

I am not licensed to give a diagnosis of depression, but I can give some reasons that Black men may feel bad about themselves. The first is the sense of inadequacy that comes with being unable to fulfill the traditional role of being the provider for their family. This may lead to a loss in admiration and respect from their spouse or partner that can chip away at one’s self esteem.

In some cases, women have been openly disrespectful towards a man who is unable to fulfill core financial needs. This is undoubtedly a contributor to high divorce rates. A lack of financial stability can furthermore cause single men to not even want to engage in the dating process. The dating scene often involves the man having to pick up the tab for expensive meals and entertainment activities.

There is a mask of false bravado that many men wear. Underneath the mask, they are hurting because they haven’t figured out a way to live up to an ever illusive standard set by a hyper-materialistic American society. The standard is not one set amount of financial accumulation, but an ever changing goal line that seems to always be just out of reach.

There is also the specter of social media that often causes people to act like they are in a financial position that is not in alignment with their reality. The point when the reality sets in that they are not the “baller” that they portray on social media can potentially create an impostor syndrome that can lead to deeper levels of depression.

The realities of the labor market cannot be ignored. Black men have almost been rendered as obsolete in some areas of employment. Many of the traditional factory jobs that Black men once occupied have disappeared due to a myriad of factors, including globalization, automation, and competition from immigrant groups. A significant number of people have taken to self-medicating themselves with drugs and alcohol to cope with their frustration and disappointment.

Rural areas that are predominately White are now being hit with the consequences of economic deterioration that has impacted inner cities for decades. The stress of being unable to adequately meet financial obligations has the capacity to press almost anyone into destructive behaviors. There has been a good deal written about the heroin and opioid crisis in various regions of the country. It has been hypothesized that a sizable portion of the crisis can be attributed to undiagnosed depression.

The framing of the heroin and opioid crisis as a medical issue is drastically different from the crack epidemic that was characterized by criminality. It is also problematic that the Trump administration, through the directives of Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to pump the gas on locking more people up for longer periods of time for drug offenses. There seems to be an effort to expend additional resources on incarceration while simultaneously cutting funding for public institutions and resources like public schools that produce economically viable citizens.

Unfortunately, it looks like it may get worse before it gets better. The proposed Trump budget features draconian cuts for working class and poor people. An article from The Hill cited figures from the Washington Post that estimate that “Trump’s budget will include $800 million in Medicaid cuts over the next 10 years, which would cause 10 million low-income people to lose health benefits.”

Trump’s budget would also cut $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (Food Stamps). The impact of these cuts will be very significant for the African-American community. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that “one in three food stamp households is headed by an African American. More than a third of food stamps benefits – over $10 billion per year – are issued to African Americans.

Though the challenges are enormous, it is crucial for people to not be defeated by defeat at this time. We can’t afford to ignore the reality of what is going on, but we also can’t be overtaken by despair. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

We as a people have seen and conquered bigger obstacles. We must rise up and be more strategic with our actions, more targeted with our demands, and more steadfast in our resolve. We must simultaneously engage in an inside fight against hopelessness and an outside battle against forces that consistently block access and opportunity. Recognize the greatness that is within you and use it to help turn your broken dreams into a greater tomorrow for our communities.

Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a Scholar and Activist


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