Saturday, November 21, 2009

7257: Suicidal Stereotypes…?

From The Chicago Sun-Times…

‘Black people don’t commit suicide’
Social stigma helps to explain reaction to Michael Scott death

By Mark Brown Sun-Times Columnist

There’s an old saying in the African-American community, passed down from generation to generation, that goes a long way toward explaining some of what transpired here last week after the death of Chicago School Board President Michael Scott.

It goes like this: Black people don’t commit suicide.

“We’ve all heard that growing up,” acknowledged the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park.

Not being an African American, count me among those who had never heard that stated before this week.

But it helped me understand the wide cultural disconnect that’s taken place in recent days as a large portion of Chicago’s black community has taken great umbrage with the initial finding that Scott committed suicide—a determination that only appears logical to most people on the other side of the racial divide.

The saying is not true, of course. Blacks do commit suicide, although they are much less likely to do so than whites.

The rate of suicide among blacks is about half the rate for the U.S. population as a whole. Up until the 1980s, the disparity was even wider with the black suicide rate at only one-fourth of the overall population’s.

The belief that African Americans don’t commit suicide may not be as much about statistics as about cultural identity.

It’s rooted in the concept that descendants of a people that survived the horrors of slavery—“the strongest of the strong”—would not choose to take their own lives, said Hatch. In that vein, “black people don’t commit suicide” is as much an admonition as a statement of fact.

One result is that the stigma that has long been attached to suicide across all cultures remains particularly strong in the African-American community, practically to the point of denial.

Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Donna Barnes, founder and president of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide.

It’s something she’s been dealing with ever since she started her organization 11 years ago in response to an anomaly that saw the suicide rate among young black males spike during a three-year period in the 1990s, suddenly equalling that of young white males. It’s since dropped back down, although Barnes is among many who believe black suicides are underreported.

African Americans have difficulty believing one of their own has committed suicide “because that’s not something we have been socialized to accept,” said Barnes, a sociologist at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“It makes us look like we are weak,” she said.

On the other hand, “the dominant culture is very much aware of suicide,” Barnes said. “They talk about it. They seek help.”

Let’s stipulate right here that the “dominant culture” has a long way to go, too, in dealing with suicide, but it’s true whites have started talking more openly about suicide. That makes a big difference.

Barnes said that when a prominent member of the black community like a Michael Scott dies under these circumstances, people are shocked. That shock often translates into a sense of disbelief.

She said she has seen the same reaction many times in other situations across the country.

“They can’t process it, so they deny it,” Barnes said. “… They’ll say, ‘Oh, it was foul play. Oh, it was murder.’”

I would emphasize that Barnes was making no judgment on the Scott case, which she has followed only from a distance, although she said everything she has read is consistent with what she has seen in other suicides—including the absence of some obvious explanation for why Scott would have killed himself.

Last week, a group of ministers and community activists held a news conference to demand an outside investigation into Scott’s death. Some of them went so far as to call his death a murder, a most irresponsible accusation in my opinion given the facts as we know them.

I was surprised to hear that Hatch was among those in attendance, having always found him to be responsible and forthright in his community activism.

In our phone conversation, Hatch sought to distance himself from the murder allegation, saying he only wants an outside investigation “to clear the air” because of doubts and fears in the black community created in part by the early public clash between Chicago Police and the Cook County medical examiner.

I suggested another approach might have been to clear the air about black suicide. He didn’t dispute that.

“There’s a social stigma [about suicide] in the black community, if we’d be honest about it,” Hatch said.

That’s always a good place to start.

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