Are We Talking About Men So We Can Ignore Race?

The recession has harmed black Americans, male and female, more than it’s harmed men. So why do we keep hearing the gender story?

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Job seekers at a 2012 job fair in Melville, NY.

One of the most persistent narratives of the Great Recession has been the so-called “end of men” — that is, the ebbing of men’s historical dominance over the world of work. Many have noted that this dominance hasn’t actually ebbed very far, but the narrative continues — last week, a report featured in The New York Times blamed the problem on single moms. But the “end of men” story line ignores the fact that the recession has produced much bigger disparities between black and white Americans than between men and women.

This story line may be popular not because it’s accurate, but because it plays into media biases. It lets us focus on a group that’s been historically powerful — men, especially white men — at the expense of people who had less economic power before the recession and suffered even more seriously during it.

“Both black men and white [men] have been the subject of a moral panic,” Natalie Hopkinson, author of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation, told BuzzFeed. “Black men just got theirs sooner, in the 1980s with the talk of black men as ‘endangered species.’” By the time the recession hit, “there were lower expectations to begin with” for black men, Hopkinson explained. “But for white men to grapple with the possibility of becoming superfluous in our society is an attack on the privilege they’ve always enjoyed.”

White men may also be more likely to be portrayed as innocent victims of bad circumstances. “The men we demonize as losers tend to be black men, who are so often presented as absent fathers, drug dealers, violent/in jail,” said Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry and a writer on gender issues, in an email. “The vision of the loser white man may be unattractive, but he’s also often presented as a passive and pitiable victim (of ascendant female power).”

Men did experience a greater drop [PDF] in employment than women in the heart of the recession — from 2007 to 2010, their unemployment rate jumped by nearly 7%, while women’s climbed 4.4%. But black unemployment experienced a much steeper rise — 8.6%, compared with 4.8% for whites. And yet it was men’s struggle relative to women that got most of the attention.

A quick search of The New York Times yields pages of stories about gender and the recession, including at least five that refer to a “mancession.” A search on race and the recession, by contrast, turns up just a few results.

One of them is an excellent column by Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad, who note that black Americans had already seen employment drop 2.4% in the seven years prior to the recession and had lost as much as $93 billion in the value of their homes between 1998 and 2006.

The fact that black families across the country were already on a shaky footing made the recession that much worse for them. Ehrenreich and Muhammad write, “Thanks to a legacy of a discrimination in both hiring and lending, they’re less likely than whites to be cushioned against the blows by wealthy relatives or well-stocked savings accounts. In 2008, on the cusp of the recession, the typical African-American family had only a dime for every dollar of wealth possessed by the typical white family.” And as the recession continued, that lack of a cushion turned out to matter a lot: As of 2009, black recent home buyers were almost twice as likely as whites to have lost their homes to the recession.

Foreclosures above limited to homeowners who received loans between 2005 and 2008. Data via Center for Responsible Lending [PDF].

So why aren’t we hearing about race and the recession nearly as much as we’re hearing about gender? Part of it is no doubt simple bias. People of color tend to be underrepresented in news stories generally — one Pittsburgh-area study found that less than 1% of local news stories mentioned any black person.

It’s also possible that the “end of men” narrative has been so popular because it’s surprising — the fact that black Americans were already struggling before the recession hit may have served as an excuse for covering their recessionary troubles less.

But the “end of men” story may also get so much play because it’s leant itself to certain easy solutions: In order to succeed in the new economy, the thinking goes, men just have to step up. In a review of the book version of The End of Men, David Brooks wrote that “women are adapting to today’s economy more flexibly and resiliently than men” and that “men will have to be less like Achilles, imposing their will on the world, and more like Odysseus, the crafty, many-sided sojourner.”

Of course, pundits (including Bill Cosby) have directed this kind of advice at black Americans too. But it may seem more convincing directed at a group that used to be economically on top. Ultimately, the message of the “end of men” is that those hardest hit by the recession are those who used to be in power, and if they can figure out a way to act a little differently, they’ll be in power again. But those really hurt most by the recession were those who had the fewest resources to begin with — those for whom simply acting like Odysseus is never going to bring wealth, because they were far from it in the first place. If you focus on them, what you see is a recession that only widened gaps that already existed. And closing those is going to take more than a little flexibility.

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