A new study finds that despite enduring more hardships and coming face-to-face with as much societal strife than at any other point in history, black males have now grown more resilient than ever before.
Conducted by the National Institute of Health, researchers set out to pinpoint and identify all the protective factors most commonly found in the most well-adjusted of black males. Typical concerns such as police harassment, high unemployment and spiraling incarceration rates were all earnestly debated, with the aim being illustrating the themes of strength that subsist despite all the adversity.
“We know what puts people at risk, but what protects those who are vulnerable?” opined Lisa Bowleg, study co-author and an associate professor in the School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “It’s not money, that’s for sure.”
And yet, researchers also found a growing abundance of that very sector are hard work in striving to find ways and engage in undertakings aimed at strategically navigating those overlays largely based on a stringent set of principles centered around such characteristics as perseverance, self-reflection, commitment to learning from previous hardships, at least a base level of religious or spiritual awareness and the benefit of a supportive environment.
“Too often, researchers focus on black men’s weaknesses rather than their strengths,” Michelle Teti, assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Missouri’s School of Health Professions and the study’s other primary researcher. “By understanding what’s working, we can reinforce those positive behaviors and help men make healthier choices.”
For the purposes of research, the study defined resilience as the way in which low-income black males residing in targeted areas come to demonstrate positive mental health, irrespective of stress and/or levels of adversity.
“Resilience is not a psychological trait that you either are born with or not; resilience can be taught and nurtured,” added Bowleg. “Accordingly, our findings suggest we can use resilience strategies used by men in our study to teach other low-income black men how to better protect themselves and their sexual partners from risk despite harsh social-structural realities.”
Despite their ability to adapt and more and more increasingly overcome a growing number of their obstacles, both Tefi and Bowleg agree communities at large and government officials in particular should be striving to do more in the realm of preparing black men for successes and teaching them to how to better protect themselves, both physically and psychologically.
“It is admirable that these men are resilient in the face of such severe challenges; however, the men’s efforts only can be translated into success if they are supported by social environments and policies that change the odds against them,” said Tefi.
“Low-income, black urban men desperately need jobs,” added Bowleg. “They need quality educations; they need policies designed to keep them out of prisons. They need opportunities to make living wages for themselves and their families; they need safer neighborhoods. "The most disconcerting aspects of our research on resilience were the narratives of men who were doggedly trying to be resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable social-structural obstacles."
Now that successful forms of resilience have been at least marginally pinpointed, Bowleg is hoping all such principles will be shared with and taught to other would-be victims. “Early studies of resilience were done on kids and it was thought to be an innate trait, something you were born with,” she said. “But now we know thought contemporary research that it can be taught and honed.”
Ever the wonderer, Bowleg is now hoping all her goodwill research doesn’t somehow come back to bite her in the backside.
“People will just say, ‘Oh, well, they can be resilient’” and use that as an excuse for not providing badly needed social services, education and job training,” she said. “There are black men who are responsible and work hard, but that’s not the story that gets told about them.”
Complete findings were recently published in Qualitative Health Research Journal. All research was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Development as part of a larger study entitled “REPRESENT: The Health and Sexual Experience of Black Men."
Other co-authors included Ashley Martin from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Richa Ranade and Jenne Massie from Drexel University, David Malebranche from Emory University and Jeanne Tschann from the University of California-San Francisco.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.