Black Like Me

by John Howard Griffin

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Student Question

What is the cause of self-destructive behavior in the black community in Black Like Me?

Quick answer:

There are many possible causes of self-destructive behavior, but Black Like Me’s setting highlights the role of American history in this context. The history of systemic discrimination against African Americans has created stereotypes that criminalize and marginalize their identities. This can have negative impacts on self-esteem that provoke self-destructive behavior. In addition, structural racism has led to poverty and police violence in many African American communities, which can create a need for destructive criminal behavior in order to survive.

Expert Answers

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You will of course have your own opinions about this question. I will provide a few ideas to get you started, but please do not limit yourself to them.

Self-destructive behavior can have many causes, but in the context of Black Like Me you should definitely consider the role of historical and social context. The experience of African Americans in the American South highlights the country’s long legacy of structural discrimination. After almost 100 years of slavery, African Americans continue to face social institutions that continue slavery’s legacy. For example, sharecropping during Reconstruction continued to tie poor workers to the land. Then Jim Crow laws legalized discrimination for another 100 years. In the meantime, the constitutional exception for incarceration as slavery motivated white people to perpetuate false claims that African Americans were more involved in crime than whites.

The ways in which structural racism has criminalized and marginalized African Americans has understandably motivated destructive behavior. For example, consider the impact of the socially constructed idea that African American men are more involved in crime than white men. If society tells someone that they are a criminal who should be feared, how might that impact that person’s sense of self-worth?

In addition, consider how the history of systemic racism has impacted violence among African Americans. For example, the aforementioned actions like Jim Crow made it incredibly difficult for African Americans to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Being stuck in a cycle of poverty often motivates criminal behavior as a means for survival. The lack of trust between white authority figures (like police) and African Americans has also led to the development of street violence in urban African American communities. Feeling that the police are not watching out for their best interests, streets gangs often create their own sort of neighborhood justice systems. This leads to a lot of crime and destructive behaviors among African American communities. It is important to note that the existence of “black on black” crime is often used by white authority figures to justify increasing police interference in African American communities. This is a flawed understanding of what these communities need, because it is actually over-policing and under-protection that causes such problems in the first place.

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