New York—Keith Borders tries hard not to scare people.
He’s 6-foot-7, a garrulous lawyer who talks with his hands.
And he’s black.
Many people find him threatening. He works hard to prove otherwise.
“I have a very keen sense of my size and how I communicate,” says Borders of Mason, Ohio. “I end up putting my hands in my pockets or behind me. I stand with my feet closer together. With my feet spread out, it looks like I’m taking a stance. And I use a softer voice.”
Every day, African-American men consciously work to offset stereotypes about them—that they are dangerous, aggressive, angry. Some smile a lot, dress conservatively and speak with deference: “Yes, sir,” or “No, ma’am.” They are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into closing elevators or stand too close in grocery stores.
It’s all about surviving, and trying to thrive, in a nation where biased views of black men stubbornly hang on decades after segregation and where statistics show a yawning gap between the lives of white men and black men. Black men’s median wages are barely three-fourths those of whites; nearly 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars during his life; and, on average, black men die six years earlier than whites.
Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says learning to adapt is at the heart of being an American black male.
“Black mothers and fathers socialize their sons to not make waves, to not come up against the authorities, to speak even more politely not only when there are whites present but particularly if there are whites who have power,” she said.
“Most black men are able to shift from a sort of relaxed, authentically black pose into a respectable black man pose. Either they develop the dexterity to move back and forth or ultimately they flounder.”
It’s a lot like a game of chess, says 43-year-old Chester Williams, who owns Chester Electric in New Orleans. He has taught his three sons, ages 16, 14 and 11, to play.
“The rules of the game are universal: White moves first, then black moves,” he said. “Black has to respond to the moves that the whites make. You take the advantage when it’s available.”
Twenty-year-old Chauncy Medder of Brooklyn says his baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts make him seem like “another one of those thuggish black kids.” He offsets that with “Southern charm” he learned attending high school in Virginia—“a lot of ‘Yes, ma’ams,’ and as little slang as possible. When I speak to them (whites), they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re different.’“
He recalled that, “as a child, we all sat down with my mother and father and watched the movie ‘Roots,’“ the groundbreaking 1970s television miniseries tracing a black family from Africa through slavery and into modern times.
The slaves were quietly obedient around whites. “But as soon as the master was gone,” he said, “they did what they really wanted to do. That’s what we were taught.”
Historians agree that black stereotypes and coping strategies are rooted in America’s history of slavery and segregation.
Last year, Yale University research on public school pre-kindergarten programs in 40 states found that blacks were expelled twice as often as whites—and nine out of 10 blacks expelled were boys. The report did not analyze the patterns, but some trace it to negative views about black boys.
Black male children are often “labeled in public schools as being out of control,” said Lacewell, who studies black political culture and wrote “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.”
“If you’re a black boy who is smart and energetic and always has the answer and throws his hand up in the air,” she said, “you might as a parent say, ‘Even if you know the answer you might not want to make a spectacle of yourself. You don’t want to call attention to yourself.’“
One selective business program at historically black Hampton University in Virginia directs black men to wear dark, conservative suits to class. Earrings and dreadlocked hairstyles are forbidden. Their appearance is “communicating a signal that says you can go into more places,” said business school dean Sid Credle. “There’s more universal acceptance if you’re conservative in your image and dress style.”
But in the corporate world, clothing can only help so much, said Janet B. Reid of Global Lead Management Consulting, who advises companies on managing ethnic diversity.
Black men, especially those who look physically imposing, often have a tough time.
“Race always matters,” said Ferguson, whose Day in the Life Foundation connects minority teenagers with professionals. “It’s always in play.”
Fletcher knows his light brown skin gives him an advantage—except that he’s “unsmiling.”
“If you’re a black man who doesn’t smile a lot, they (whites) get really nervous,” he said. “There are black people I run across all the time and they’re always smiling particularly when they’re around white people. A lot of white people find that very comforting.”
All this takes a toll.