Think life is tough? Try being a black male in a low-income neighborhood in a city like, say, Philly. That’s where Drexel professor Lisa Bowleg found the guys she studied for a new report on how they manage to negotiate the “almost insurmountable societal barriers they’re up against.”
Bowleg, the principal investigator for a National Institutes of Health study of heterosexual black men’s behavior, teamed up with University of Missouri professor Michelle Teti for the research into how such men maintain positive mental health. “We know what puts people at risk, but what protects those who are vulnerable?” Bowleg says.
Bowleg and Teti set out to identify the protective factors that well-adjusted men had in common. “We asked in interviews about their experiences as black men,” says Bowleg. “We heard about the police harassment, the incarceration, the unemployment. But we wanted to know, what are the themes of strength despite adversity?” Her team was able to zero in on five protective traits: perseverance, commitment to learning from hardships, reflecting and refocusing to address difficulties, creating supportive environments, and obtaining support from religion and spirituality.
“I’m really interested in resilience,” says Bowleg, who was originally studying HIV in Philly’s female population—“before I got sick of HIV prevention campaigns telling women to use condoms.” She found a wealth of research on homosexual black men, but a dearth of information about heterosexual black males. So her team sought out heterosexual, culturally grounded guys in barbershops, in restaurants and on street corners, screening them in the field and interviewing them to determine what factors helped them surmount their circumstances.
Now that successful forms of resilience have been identified, Bowleg says, they can be shared with and taught to other men. “Early studies of resilience were done on kids,” she says, “and it was thought to be an innate trait, something you were born with. But now we know through contemporary research that it can be taught and honed.”
Bowleg says she recognizes one potential danger of her findings: “People will just say, ‘Oh, well, they can be resilient’” and use that as an excuse for not providing badly needed social services, education and job training. She cites the number of study subjects who reported having trouble finding or holding onto jobs because of long-ago criminal convictions. But she also mentions the man who talked about trying to make it and who’d bought himself a computer: “I don’t know how to use it yet,” he told her with determination, “but I’m gonna learn how to by next week.”
“There are black men who are responsible and work hard,” Bowleg says, “but that’s not the story that gets told about them.” The government and the community, she adds, should do more to prepare black men for success instead of for failure.