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In Ravaged Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s Pastor Speaks of the Dearth of Black Male Role Models

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Mark Stricherz

Mark Stricherz - published on 05/11/15

Rev. Jamal A. Bryant breaks taboo by insisting black men must step up
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BALTIMORE – When the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant walks into public schools here, he sees the same pattern over and over. “In a lot of schools, the only male authority figures are the security guard and the gym teacher. What you don’t see are men in schools as teachers and principals,” said Bryant, the pastor at Empowerment Temple, an African Methodist Episcopal church on the city’s west side.

Bryant sees a similar pattern at work in local and national politics: Black women step up but few black men do. “For the last 25 years, women have been the ones on the front lines. We have a black mayor, a female. We have a black [city] comptroller, a female. We have a black state attorney general and a black U.S. Attorney General, both females,” Bryant said, referring to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, Baltimore comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Baltimore state attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Bryant, 43, is an exception to the rule he cites. He gave the eulogy at the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25 year old man who allegedly suffered a severe spinal injury and died after being in police custody for a week. Also, Bryant has cut a national profile. He was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri in protest of the death of Michael Brown last summer and counseled the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was gunned down after a fight with a Hispanic neighborhood watch commander in 2012.

It will be objected that the President of the United States (Barack Obama), the congressman who represents west Baltimore (Elijah Cummings), and local pastors like Bryant are black men. And Bryant volunteered that more than 100 black men stood on the streets in the heart of west Baltimore to quell the riot on the Tuesday night after looters tore through stores and demonstrators threw rocks and projectiles at police.

Yet recent events in west Baltimore support Bryant’s reluctant conclusion about the lack of “presence” of local black men. Toya Graham, a parishioner of Bryant’s church, became a national symbol of a responsible inner-city parent after she smacked her 16-year-old son repeatedly for participating in the riots and ordered him to return home.

When the community needed for order to be restored, members of the police and National Guard enforced a city-wide curfew. On May 1, the day Mosby said she would seek indictments of the six police officers implicated in the death of Gray, scores of National Guard members were on duty in a four-or-five-block radius of the burnt-out CVS store on Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th streets. Two tan armored Humvees idled on the corner of Retreat Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, while an armored National Guard member directed traffic.  Three to four dozen National Guardsmen huddled in small knots outside the CVS store, wearing protective shields and black knee guards and wielding semi-automatic rifles and three-foot long billy clubs.

Fifty years ago, a bureaucrat in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, echoed Bryant’s conclusion about the dearth of virtuous black male role models in poor-and-working class urban neighborhoods. Patrick Moynihan, then the head of the office of policy planning and research at the Labor Department, later a U.S. Senator from New York, identified the non-traditional familial role of black men as a weakness of downscale black life. “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well,” Moynihan wrote in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

The so-called Moynihan Report is remembered as a conservative document because it criticized black family structure. In truth, the 35,000-word report was neither conservative nor liberal in its diagnosis of the problem.

For example, Moynihan did not describe slavery as static in its effects. He said the institution has disfigured black family life for generations. Endorsing the opinion that American slavery was “the most awful the world has ever known,” Moynihan noted that black men had no rights. “His children could be sold, his marriage was not recognized, his wife could be violated or sold … and he could also be subject to frightful barbarities …” he wrote. By contrast, Moynihan noted, black slaves in feudal, Catholic Brazil “had many more rights than in the United States: he could legally marry, he could, indeed had to, be baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church, his family could not be broken up for sale, and he had many days on which he could either rest or earn money to buy his freedom.”

Moynihan said the lack of black role models in poor, urban neighborhoods helped create the “tangle of pathology” there. He endorsed the opinion of Urban League President Whitney Young on the crisis in black male life:

Both as a husband and as a male the Negro male is made to feel inadequate, not because he is unlovable or unaffectionate, lacks intelligence or even a gray flannel suit. But in a society that measures a man by the size of his pay check, he doesn’t stand very tall in comparison with his white counterpart. To this situation he may react with withdrawal, bitterness toward society, aggression both within the family and racial group, self-hatred, or crime. Or he may escape through a number of avenues that help him to lose himself in fantasy or to compensate for his low status through a variety of exploits.

Half a century later, most academic experts agree with Moynihan and Young’s conclusion. In “The Long Shadow,” three sociologists followed 790 poor children who began first grade in the fall of 1982 in 20 Baltimore public schools. They found that 25 years later, “the children who lived in more cohesive neighborhoods, had stronger families, and attended better schools tended to maintain a higher economic status later in life.“

One danger in the notion of Bryant’s is in the realm of ideas.  Most elite media and political actors are uncomfortable discussing gender unless they can affirm the contributions of women to public affairs. On the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, no national pundits or politicians have echoed Moynihan’s conclusions about the drawbacks of a matriarchal culture.

Others may oppose Bryant’s critique.  Progressive feminists didn’t like the Moynihan report to begin with, and are unlikely to remain on the sidelines if Bryant’s thesis catches fire. Those in the political center reject the notion that inner cities can or should be redeveloped and urge residents to move out.

Conservatives perceive the problem in downscale black communities as a familial rather than a civic one. "There are so many things we can talk about: the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of a moral code in our society. This isn’t just a racial thing,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican, said last month. Those in the political center reject the notion that inner cities can or should be redeveloped and urge residents to move out.

Black religious leaders like Bryant agree that absent fatherhood holds back black progress; when Bryant was asked what he says to a black man who said he is ready to be a father but not a husband, he said he tells them, “then you’re not ready to be a father.” But black religious leaders’ analysis of the problem in the ghettoes differs from (white) social conservatives. Social conservatives say that absent fatherhood is the primary problem. Many black religious leaders say it is only one among many problems.

Take Robert Harrell, 56, who preaches on the streets of west Baltimore and ministers in the city’s jails. After Mosby announced her charges against the six Baltimore police officers, Harrell stood outside the torched CVS on West North Street and with an amped-up microphone in his hand, he urged passersby to embrace Jesus Christ.  By 4:10 p.m., Harrell had finished his street preaching and talked with an out-of-town reporter. “Yeah, it plays a part. It plays a part,” Harrell said of the absence of fathers in many black families. “But so does a guy giving up on his education and kids being born out of wedlock as well as a lack of jobs. And when he gets out of jail, he can’t get a job because he has a record.”

Bryant himself is devoted to many causes in black America. For example, he has spoken on CNN repeatedly to urge for a reform of the Baltimore police department. But he is also devoted to increasing the profile of black men in his own church. “We have a very strong men’s group in our church. We have active engagement from them. If there’s a woman in leadership, we balance it with a man,” he said.

In west Baltimore, as outsiders deliberate about solutions, the path to fixing the underlying maladies of downscale black communities begins with baby steps to put the black man up rather than keeping him down.

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