August 12, 2020
By Jed Diamond, CPS Partnership Community
I’m not black, but what happens to black people strikes very close to home. It’s personal for me. My wife and I adopted Angela, an African American girl, when she was 2 1/2 months old. She’s 48 now and has three sons and a daughter who are all African American. For nearly fifty years, I’ve feared for their lives, particularly my grandsons, Deon (age 22), Derrick (age20), and Trey-Shawn (age 7).
In these times of uncertainty and confusion, thoughts and feelings come together and click into place like the Lego blocks my grandchildren used to play with.
I remember taking Deon to a retreat sponsored by the Men’s Center of Los Angeles when he was fifteen years old. It was a special program for young men between the ages of twelve and twenty and included many African American young men and their sponsors from inner-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In one of the small group sessions Deon, who was generally very quiet and shy, opened up and talked about what he needed. “I’m lost in my life and I need guidance,” he said. Other young men talked about their own experiences and for the first time I had a deep appreciation for the violence that is so much a part of the lives of Black boys and men.
One boy talked about killings he had seen in his neighborhood and Deon also talked about people knew who had been killed not far from the apartment where he lived. Another young boy said he didn’t want a lot in life, just to know that he would survive another day and not be shot by policeman for being black. Tears ran down my cheeks thinking that this was the world my grandson and his family lived in. Just staying alive was a task they faced every day, something I had never experienced growing up, or now, as I lived my life as a privileged White male.
The COVID-19 crisis is forcing us all to decide what kind of men we are going to be. Will we take our fear, anger, and rage out on others? I can’t help thinking that it has a lot to do with the questions of maleness, male fear, and male privilege.
I understand a little more about why Black lives matter than the average White man, but until I saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, I didn’t really feel it in my bones. I had heard the stories from my daughter and her family. I had seen news reports about black men and boys being killed, but watching the video of White police officers holding down a handcuffed Black man, with one officer, Derek Chauvin pressing on his neck while George Floyd gasped his last words:
“I can’t breathe” …
“Please, the knee in my neck?”…
“My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts?”…
“Don’t kill me” …
According to an ABC news report, “Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including nearly three minutes after Floyd stopped moving and talking.” We all witnessed a reality that few in the world had ever seen—a black man being held down by other white men, while one man choked the life out of George Floyd.
After seeing the video numerous times and feeling rage, terror, anguish, disbelief, numbness, and more rage, I thought, that could have been Deon, Derrick, Trey-Shawn, or the father of my grandsons, Walter Magee. Looking at pictures of Derek Chauvin, I wondered about him. He’s about the same age as my daughter, Angela, but he was a boy once who I’m guessing was joyful and caring, like most boys. What happened to him that he grew up to be a man who had no empathy for George Floyd? Did he experience violence as a youth as my grand kids have? What made him so enraged that he could kill a helpless man who was no threat to him? Why didn’t one of the other officers stop him?
Today, as I was doing my morning jog through our little town of Willits, a police car drove by. I waved at the officer driving the car and he waved back. We don’t know each other, but for me I thought, he’s there to protect me. For him, I’m one of the good guys and, in his eyes, heart, and in the fear centers of his brain, I’m no threat.
I know it’s a different experience for my grandsons and for all those males whose skin is closer to the color of my grandson’s than to the color of my own skin. As I reflect on what all this means to me, I can’t help thinking that it has a lot to do with the questions of maleness, male fear, and male privilege. Until he was killed, George Floyd was a man. He was killed by another man, Derek Chauvin, while three other men helped hold George Floyd down.
And in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, we see protests and violence in the streets of America, I see mostly young men doing the damage. I wonder about the fear and despair that underlies the male violence and anger we are seeing. Another piece clicks in for me.
In their ground-breaking book, Deaths of Despair, social scientists Anne Case and Angus Deaton say, “Deaths of despair have contributed to three years of consecutive reductions in average life expectancy, making the U.S. the only wealthy nation in modern times to exhibit such a reversal.” What’s the despair level for men in America today? So many are out of work now and so many haven’t ever had a decent job, or ever will. What does that do to a man’s self-esteem and hope for the future?
I know it nearly killed my own father. He took an overdose of drugs when I was five years old because of the despair he felt because he couldn’t make a living to support his family. In a journal I found many years later, he had recorded his increasing feelings of hopelessness. In the last journal entry, he wrote:
“A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle ages, I stand and gaze ahead numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Today I feel my hope and my life stream both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”
He didn’t die following the overdose, but our lives were never the same. I think about all the males in this world who feel they are battering against doors that will never open for them, trying to succeed in an economic system that favors the top 1% while the rest must fight each other for the little that is left over.
Another piece clicks into place as I feel a relationship to the fact that we are in the midst of one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever seen. As I write this on May 31, 2020, there are more than 6 million cases of Covid-19 reported and more than 370,000 have died worldwide. In the U.S. alone, there are over 1,800,000 cases reported and over 105,000 deaths.
We say we are all in this together. But that’s not true. A headline in MedPage Today, reads: COVID-19 Killing African Americans at Shocking Rates. The report goes on to say, “In Louisiana, African Americans comprise 33% of the population but accounted for 70% of COVID-19 deaths. In Michigan, they comprise 14% of the population and account for 40% of deaths, in Chicago, the are 30% of the population, but 56% of deaths and in New York, black people are twice as likely as white people to die from the coronavirus.”
It isn’t just race that is linked to increased death, but sex as well. Numerous studies show that Covid-19 is much more fatal for men than for women. “In every country with sex-disaggregated data “there is between a 10% and 90% higher rate of mortality among people diagnosed with COVID if they are men than if they are women,” says Sarah Hawkes, professor of global public health at University College London.
The COVID-19 crisis is forcing us all to decide what kind of men we are going to be. Will we take our fear, anger, and rage out on others? Will we give in to the despair and choose death for ourselves? Or will we come together, heal our old wounds as individuals and as a country, and create a new tomorrow based on equality and justice for all.
Ted Kennedy asked, “Do we operate under a system of equal justice under law? Or is there one system for the average citizen and another for the high and mighty?”
We need to be reminded again and again, in the words of former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, neither persons nor property will be safe.” Maybe this time we will listen and we will act in support of Deon, Derrick, Trey-Shawn, their father Walter, and all boys and men of color in our country.
Jed Diamond, PhD is the founder of the men’s health organization MenAlive, and author of 15 books including The Irritable Male Syndrome. He is on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network, is a prolific blogger, and has appeared in numerous national news and media.