Gun Violence and American Masculinity

January 13, 2024
3 mins read


By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Thursday, July 8, 2010.

 The numbers are simply breathtaking; during a 60-hour period, over the weekend beginning June 18, 2010, more than fifty people were shot in the city of Chicago, seven of them fatally. Not coincidentally, two of those shootings occurred when shots were fired randomly at a crowd gathered for a Pride Weekend event in the city. More than 25 people were victims of shooting violence the following weekend, at least three of them fatally, adding to the city’s increasing homicide rate (more than 200 by mid June). Ironically, Chicago has had a handgun ban in place for nearly three decades. The ban was successfully challenged, in a Supreme Court decision that was handed down this week. Clearly something is not working in Chicago, as is the case in many American cities, towns and hamlets.

That a significant portion of the violence was gang-related and involved young black men, should surprise no one. Let’s not pretend, though, that this is a problem endemic only to large urban centers like Chicago or black youth for that matter; The level of violence we’ve witnessed has become all too ordinary in America, particularly as the nation wages two wars abroad (wars that Chicago based Barack Obama has expanded) and Tea-baggers casually insinuate the use of violence to reclaim “freedoms” they supposedly lost in the last Presidential election.

That we live in a culture of violence, notwithstanding, we do have to look starkly at the realities of that shape violence in the lives of black youth, particularly black males. According to recent Department of Justice figures (2008), black males aged 18-29 have the highest homicide rates in the country. Additionally this same age group of black males is the most likely to commit homicide—with their black male peers, accordingly being the most likely targets. These statistics give us some insight into the on-the-ground issues instigate such violence.

There are of course the usual suspects; the crippling effect of the erosion of the traditional nuclear family, and the absence of male adults—fathers—in the lives of these young men and boys. Still others will cites the usual scapegoat, rap music, as a primary culprit, as two of the genres most visible icons, T.I. and Little Wayne have been incarcerated on gun related charges. These are legitimate concerns to consider, but neither theory, gets at the everyday aspects of the black male experience where, respect creates hard-earned social capital and hypermasculine performance is a valuable commodity.

Hypermasculinity can best be described as behaviors or performances that amplify the already masculine aspects of male identity. Thus elevated forms of aggression and risk taking are part of the hypermasculine performance. In that manhood is often the only tangible source of power and respect available to young black men, particularly those in impoverished environments, hypermasculinity can be more palpable to their lives than their white male peers.

In the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, researchers Elaine F. Cassidy and Howard C. Stevenson, Jr. have argued that hypermasculinity among young black men really masks the hypervulnerability of their lives. In other words, there might be a direct correlation between the vulnerability felt by young black men within the realms of their schooling, economic status and safety that manifest itself in the image of the “hard” black man and forms of depression.

It would be easy to identify how public policy has failed to protect many of these young men from feeling vulnerable, or marginalized to cite the work of sociologist Alford Young, Jr., but I submit that it is the very idea of American masculinity that has failed them. Many men in this country have been sold a fake bill of goods regarding the concept of manhood, believing that maleness is the embodiment of power and domination.

Personal attributes such as vulnerability and thoughtfulness are seen as less than masculine or too women-like. As such young black men often respond to threats of violence or even simple acts of disrespect, by responding in kind because to negotiate or back-down is viewed as weakness. Within the political economy of masculinity in the United States, it’s either punk or get punked and even the current United States President understands that dynamic.

We absolutely need to be more vigilant about violence, particularly gun violence, in our communities and we need to hold law enforcement more accountable for incompetent and murderous behavior, like the shooting of Oscar Grant. We also need to develop more on-the-ground strategies to equip young black men to make better and life affirming choices in their lives. But, until we fundamentally dismantle the ways we think about manhood in this country, we will continually have to deal with levels of violence that we have, unfortunately, become insensitive to.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books on music and popular culture, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy, which will be published in 2011 by New York University Press, and The TNI-Mixtape which will be available on-line for free download later this year. Neal is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

He blogs at New Black Man

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