Over the past century scholarly studies involving Black men have largely involved human experimentation, like the Tuskegee experiment; criminality and high incarceration rates, like the many figures released by the Bureau of Justice statistics; or from the perspective of unemployment, lack of education or even chronic fatherlessness, a claim which has been shown to be dubious at best.
It would seem that scholars have either ignored Black men or viewed them through a racially biased prism for centuries. Consequently, there looks to be a void of serious research about their socio-political, physical and mental health, sexuality and spirituality.
However, Morehouse College plans to fill that void with the Jan. 18 launch of its Black Men’s Research Institute (BMRI). It’s a vision that was several years in the making, during which there were several iterations in the form of curricula and programs.
“Most of the ideas and programs were bits and pieces around areas like criminal justice, education or mental health,” Derrick M. Bryan, BMRI’s associate director and a sociology professor at the school, told BET.com. “So the idea was, with everything going on in the world around social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, to draw them together and take a holistic approach to what was going on.”
Researchers will investigate the economic, social, cultural and personal outcomes of issues affecting Black men, particularly where disparities exist.
“As long as the world is in existence, there's a need for research of Black men,” he said. “There are historical problems, present-day problems and problems that will arise that we could possibly circumvent or minimize.”
There’s broad agreement about the need to research the experiences of Black men from every walk of life.
“What better place in which to engage these questions than Morehouse College,” Anthony L. Brown, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s department of curriculum and instruction, told BET.com.
Brown is the co-director of the U-T Austin’s Black Male Education Research Collection, which provides a comprehensive storehouse of scholarly articles on Black males and education. He said there’s a narrowing of how Black men are conceptualized in the existing body of research.
This stems from a history, which goes back centuries, in which white male philosophers created theories that said Black men are inferior in mind, body and spirit, but suitable for plantation work, he explained.
Those origins can be traced to chattel slavery, but also to what was once thought to be sound science authored by anthropologists like Johnann Blumenbach, who in 1776 wrongly classified human beings based on cranial shape, facial configuration and skin color.
“In many cases, arguments were made that Black men sit in this liminal space between beast and humans that were like this mixture or kind of non-human,” Brown said. “So there has been a long history of trying to place us outside of the context of humanity.”
Professor Howard C. Stevenson, of the University of Pennsylvania, points to longstanding “scientific racism” as one of the reasons for the lack of quality research on Black men and boys.
“Many of the people who study race often don't think racism is important,” said Stevenson, a clinical and consulting psychologist who has worked in impoverished rural and urban neighborhoods.
Stevenson, who is also the executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, added that many researchers doubt evidence of racism unless it’s supported by biology. Consequently, there’s a need for neuroscience research that demonstrates the impact of racism on Black lives.
Brown also pointed to a need for substantive research on how Black men make sense of their own experiences in a wide range of areas.
“We have a few studies here and there but not enough studies that understand the context that informs the experiences of Black men,” Brown said. “But we, interestingly, rarely turn to Black men and Black boys to speak to those issues.”
Both Stevenson and Brown noted the lack of research on Black boys.
“Researchers spend very little time talking to young Black boys about what it means to exist in a world that, in some cases, may frame them in a particular way,” Brown said.
Stevenson added that there’s growing neuroscience research on how Black males, even preschool-age boys, are perceived as threats. There are consequences for that in their encounters with the criminal justice system, health care and education.
“But I think it also is really, about anybody serving Black and brown children or adults, or males, who need knowledge that's been generated from research, so that they receive more competent services,” Stevenson said.
A $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funds the institute’s operations for four years. BMRI will enable students to expand on their research projects on Black men in areas ranging from health, education and economics to sexuality and gender identity. The institute plans also to incorporate research fellowships into the program.
Bryan expects the first set of research projects to work their way through the pipeline before the end of this year. Part of the focus is to inform and influence public policy, as well as to inspire and feed the social justice movement.
“We want to be a resource. We want to be a repository for information and make those connections that someone else might not have in terms of their research interest in Black men,” Bryan added.