Where Have All the Black Men Gone?

There's a gender imbalance in many African-American neighborhoods. Mass incarceration is largely to blame.
by | February 2019

Something is demographically amiss in parts of eastern DeKalb County, just outside of Atlanta. In several predominantly African-American neighborhoods, there are only about three black men for every five black women under age 65. That sort of gender imbalance reflects a number of factors, primarily mass incarceration and high mortality, and it’s present in hundreds of communities across the country. Nationally, the Census Bureau counts 88 black male adults for every 100 black women, while the ratio for whites is a more equal 97 men for every 100 women.

Governing reviewed the latest population estimates for all black adults ages 18 to 64 in Census tracts where they totaled at least 2,000. In those neighborhoods, there were only a median of 81 black men for every 100 black women. The imbalance was greatest in 380 neighborhoods, where there were fewer than two adult black men for every three adult black women under age 65. In contrast to the numbers for adults, Census estimates show that nationally, there are marginally more African-American boys than girls under age 18. 

Communities where large numbers of black men appear to have vanished aren’t confined to a few regions, and are found in states throughout the country. And disparities aren’t present just in isolated enclaves, but in many cases span entire small cities. Among these are Calumet City, Ill., and Douglasville, Ga., two suburban jurisdictions with sizable black populations, where there are about two-thirds as many black men as women.

The single biggest driver behind the absence of many black men is mass incarceration. A few academics have held up ratios of black men to women as a proxy for incarceration. Despite recent declines in prison populations, disparities remain massive. African-American males are imprisoned in state and federal facilities at six times the rate of white men, and about 25 times that of black women, according to figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Black men, underrepresented in the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods, are instead heavily concentrated in relatively few places, and those tend to be home to prisons. We identified 79 such Census tracts with more than twice as many black men as women.

Black men are further subject to high mortality. Homicides drive up rates, along with higher risks of dying from diabetes, kidney disease and sepsis than other men. In all, the latest average life expectancy at birth for black men, 71.5 years as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trails the expectancy for white men by nearly five years and for black women by more than six years.

But mortality and incarceration rates alone don’t explain why so many black men seem to be missing in communities. Alford Young, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, notes that they frequently lack permanent addresses. Women, particularly those with children, are likely to obtain support services, and thus to get counted, while black men are not and may become homeless. Young also says a subset prefers to be mobile and undocumented, mostly stemming from fears of law enforcement. “It’s really a challenge with official counts to make sense of where black men are,” he says.

The ramifications of all this are far-reaching. Partners and families of the “missing men” face a host of negative social and economic consequences, such as a shortage of income and assets. Huge numbers of women have ties to incarcerated family members: One in every 2.5 black women has a family member in prison, more than three times the number for white women, according to a Scholars Strategy Network report. For children, research suggests growing up with an incarcerated parent increases the likelihood of learning disabilities, behavioral problems and other challenges.

But the consequences of all this extend beyond families. The absence of adult males means fewer constructive relationships for local children and fewer resources for communities in general. “It’s not simply large numbers of men not being present around their children or their partners,” Young says, “but what it means in a community context to be invisible.”

 

Black Gender Disparities Map

The following map shows black men as a percentage of black women ages 18 to 64. Data is shown for Census tracts with larger black adult populations exceeding 2,000. Areas shaded dark gray have more than twice as many black male adults as black females and generally contain either large correctional facilities or military installations. Zoom out and pan the map to view other areas. (View larger map.)

Tract Black Men % of Black Women Age 18-64
 
< 50%
 
100%
 
> 150%
 
Over 2x more (typically prisons or military)
Data not shown for areas with fewer than 2,000 black adults per tract.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2017 five-year U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data for tracts with at least 2,000 black adults