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Missing in Philadelphia: 36,000 black men

A New York Times study puts a shocking number on Philadelphia's black men who are dead, in prison, or otherwise unaccounted for.

I woke up today expecting to blog about other things, but when I read this on my way into work I was so floored that I knew I wanted to post it here. It's a subject that needs to be on the front burner in the Philadelphia's mayor's race -- but it probably won't be. It's an issue that is too sensitive and also too complicated, with no one solution, no quick fix. And the sum is made up of many moving parts.

There are 36,000 missing black men in Philadelphia, according to a new study.

Let me back up a bit. They're "missing," but we know where a lot of them are. Some of them are in the ground -- dead at a ridiculously young age, thanks largely to violence but also to other hazards of urban living, from bad food to bad air. Many more are behind bars, part of the American diaspora that has given this nation the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

The problem of "missing black men" exists all over the nation, but it's worse in Philadelphia than in most places. The analysis was published today on the New York Times' Upshot blog. It found that nationally, in cities and towns with more than 10,000 black residents, there are only 83 black men for every 100 black women, and some places are worse than that. In raw numbers, Philadelphia's 36,000 shortfall in black men is the third largest, trailing only two bigger cities: New York (118,000) and Chicago (45,000). Interestingly, the Times survey found the most troubled community for African-American males, percentage-wise, is one that's been in the news a lot over the last months: Ferguson, Mo.

Here's an excerpt from the Upshot article:

The disappearance of these men has far-reaching implications. Their absence disrupts family formation, leading both to lower marriage rates and higher rates of childbirth outside marriage, as research by Kerwin Charles, an economist at the University of Chicago, with Ming-Ching Luoh, has shown.

The black women left behind find that potential partners of the same race are scarce, while men, who face an abundant supply of potential mates, don't need to compete as hard to find one. As a result, Mr. Charles said, "men seem less likely to commit to romantic relationships, or to work hard to maintain them."

The imbalance has also forced women to rely on themselves — often alone — to support a household. In those states hit hardest by the high incarceration rates, African-American women have become more likely to work and more likely to pursue their education further than they are elsewhere.

The missing-men phenomenon began growing in the middle decades of the 20th century, and each government census over the past 50 years has recorded at least 120 prime-age black women outside of jail for every 100 black men. But the nature of the gap has changed in recent years.

That change is a significant one: The Times found that death rates for young black males has dropped. That's because the homicide rate -- and make no mistake, the level of killing in underprivileged communities is still far too high -- has dropped, as have deaths from AIDS. But the overall gap in black men is higher -- because so many more of them are getting put behind bars.

As noted at top, this is a complicated problem. Those who commit serious violent crimes are a plague on the community and need to be sent away. But too much of the mass incarceration problem is driven -- in Philadelphia and elsewhere -- by draconian sentencing, by racially unequal prosecution of the "war on drugs," by communities relying on fines and punishments to balance their books, or by modern debtors' prisons. It's a conversation that's finally started in Philadelphia -- it should be noted on 4/20 that the new marijuana law was one small step for mankind -- but still has a long way to go.

The seven men and women currently vying to be the next mayor have exactly four weeks to answer this question: How will you save what's left of our missing 36,000?