Guest columnists: Civic life suffers from pressures on Black men

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 27, 2021

By Keith Sutton and Bob Hall

About the same number of young Black men and women reach voting age in North Carolina every year, but there’s a huge gender gap each time ballots are counted.

In 2020, when Trump won the state by 74,500 votes, Black women cast 622,000 ballots but Black men cast only 402,000 — a startling gap of 220,000 votes.

Women outperform men at the polls for all races in North Carolina, but their 61% to 39% dominant share among African Americans creates a 22 percentage point gap that is three times larger than the 53%-47% gender divide for white voters.

This large gap has persisted for decades, and its means generations of Black men are not using their full power as citizens — and communities suffer.

Why? Experts give three overlapping reasons that point to dehumanizing forces rooted in slavery and Jim Crow discrimination.

First, Black men die younger than Black women, beginning in their 20s when homicide is the number one cause of their death. African-American men also die from heart disease, respiratory disease, accidents and stress-induced illness more often than any other group, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Chrissy Kistler, a family physician at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, says socio-economic conditions lead to premature death for Black men, “You are less likely to have a high quality education, access to health care, financial advancement. All of that leads to worse health outcomes, mortality, chronic illness disability, and it’s due to systemic racism in this country.”

Second, fewer Black men vote because they are pushed to the margins of society, beginning at an early age. Studies show they are disciplined more harshly than white students for the same actions, leading to the notorious school-to-prison pipeline. Add biased drug laws and policing, plus discrimination in prosecution and sentencing, and the results are shocking: 1 in 3 Black men will be incarcerated in their life, compared to 1 in 17 white men and 1 in 18 Black women.

Contrary to dark stereotypes, research shows that white men living with poverty and single-parent homes are more likely to commit violent crimes than Black men. But the majority of the 160,000 North Carolinians behind bars or serving probation on any given day are Black – and at least 128,000 different people are booked into local jails each year. This in-and-out cycling increases marginalization and decreases voting by Black men, exactly the goal of many Jim Crow felony statutes. Mass incarceration and disenfranchisement are intertwined with systemic racism.

Third, confusion about post-conviction “restoration of rights” reduces voting. In North Carolina, a person automatically gets back their right to vote after serving a felony sentence, including probation; no special court document is needed. A civil fine, order for financial restitution, or misdemeanor conviction does not block voting.

Unfortunately, too many people leave prison or probation without knowing their rights, despite new discharge policies. Much more educational work is needed by justice system officials and others to replace negative myths (“if you were locked up, you’re locked out”) with an empowering message (“voting shows I’m a first-class community member”).

In addition, North Carolina should follow 24 other states and allow probationers to vote, because we want them fully integrated into society.

But ending the high rate of “civil death” among Black men will require deeper, systemic changes that address their high rates of unemployment, mobility, and mortality.

We would all benefit by these changes, says Dr. Wizdom Powell, health behavior professor at UNC-CH. “When we increase the capacity for Black males to be socially productive, they have more resources to protect themselves against incarceration and premature death. This also protects and builds strong families, which as a nation we need to thrive.”

Keith Sutton is vice chair of the NC Black Alliance and Bob Hall is former executive director of Democracy NC.