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The Mental Health Impact of 'Blame a Black Man Syndrome'

The frequent wrongful accusation of black men ruins lives and communities.

November 19th is International Men’s Day and an opportunity to raise awareness about issues faced by marginalized men. As a group, black men remain hugely underprivileged. In fact, their life expectancy remains much lower than the national average; almost a decade lower than white women. This suggests that the social environment is still highly toxic for black men.

I learned a considerable amount about issues faced by black men while working as an honorary faculty member at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington D.C. During this time, the students taught me about the reality of being black in America. One unforgettable phrase they taught me, which is relatively unknown outside of the black community, is "Blame a Black Man Syndrome."

What Is Blame a Black Man Syndrome?

Blame a Black Man Syndrome describes a common tendency to falsely accuse a black man of a crime or misconduct. It can take two forms.

Firstly, it can refer to generic racial hoaxes, where an accuser blames an imaginary black man for a non-existent crime. Famous examples include Susan Smith, who alleged that a black man carjacked her vehicle and kidnapped her sons, when in fact she had murdered her children herself. Another is Bonnie Sweeten, who claimed that she and her daughter were kidnapped by two black men when she was actually vacationing in Florida.

Secondly, it can involve accusations against a named but innocent black man. Famous examples include football player Brian Banks, who spent five years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Another is Patrick Lumumba, whose life was ruined when Amanda Knox falsely accused him of murder.

The Innocence Project

These are the famous cases, but there are thousands of lesser-known cases where black men have been wrongly convicted. We know this due to the excellent work of the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that painstakingly re-examines DNA (and other) evidence from guilty verdicts, bringing vital new information back to the legal system.

With very limited resources, the Innocence Project and other justice advocates have conducted inquiries leading to the exoneration of over 2 000 individuals, all listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. Data from the University of Michigan indicate that black men constitute over 40% of these exonerations, despite making up only 6% of the U.S. population.

Further analysis indicates that innocent black men are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white men. Likewise, innocent black men are four times more likely to be convicted of sexual assault than innocent white men. Granular-level analysis indicates that miscarriages of justice are most common when the accuser is a white woman.

Indeed, in a seminal article on "Blame a Black Man Syndrome," Dr. Nsenga Burton notes that “law-enforcement agencies pull out all the stops when a white woman says a black man has committed a crime against her." This zeal can lead to witch-hunts which often result in miscarriages of justice.

The Consequences

A small amount of research has examined the psychological consequences for men who have been falsely accused. Unsurprisingly, they reveal ruined lives, social alienation, and very high levels of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some studies indicate that the psychological damage is similar to that seen in torture survivors. Some of these factors are discussed in the video below.

What is more difficult to measure is the effect on the black community as a whole. Racial hoaxes are a painful reminder that many people still hold nefarious stereotypes of black men. Likewise, regular miscarriages of justice illuminate the ongoing reality of systematic racial biases in policing and jurisprudence. All of this can contribute to a climate of anxiety and fear, perpetuating justifiable mistrust of societal institutions in the black community.

The Way Ahead

The work of the Innocence Project indicates that black men do not stand on a level playing field when faced with legal sanction, especially where the accuser is white. This implies that changes are needed in the system to further prevent miscarriages of justice and protect defendants’ rights.

This is particularly pertinent in today’s world, given that online lynch mobs, organized pressure groups, and hyperbolic media are often baying for blood when a man is accused of a crime. This may be especially so when that man is black.

Justice is rarely color-blind, especially when dealing with black men. Just ask the family of Emmett Till. Let’s not forget this as we celebrate International Men’s Day.

More from Rob Whitley, Ph.D.
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