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African Americans: Overview

Abstract and Keywords

African Americans have been a part of the nation's history for nearly four hundred years. Although their history includes the forced imposition of chattel slavery, the strict enforcement of legal segregation, and a tenuous acceptance as equal citizens, African Americans have been, and continue to be, major contributors, creators, investors, and builders of America. In this article we summarize briefly the history of African Americans, we examine racial disparities in key indicators of social, mental, and physical well-being, and we highlight persistent strengths that can be built upon and areas that provide hope for the future. The challenge for social work is to simultaneously celebrate the historical successes and ongoing contributions of African Americans to this country while also recognizing the vestiges of structural racism and fighting for greater civil rights and social and economic justice.

Keywords: African Americans, race, poverty, disparities


The history of African Americans does not begin with slavery; rather, it begins in west and central Africa where their ancestors established ancient civilizations and empires that included great political leaders, scholars, and nobility (Isichei, 1997). Today, African Americans are a multiracial people—descendants of Africans to be sure, but many, if not most, also have European, Native American, and even some Asian ancestry. Africans and their descendants have been part of American history for at least five centuries—coming as part of 15th- and 16th- century Spanish explorations to the “New World” (Smallwood, 1999; Van Sertima, 2003). The first Africans to settle in North America were a group of 20 men and women brought to Jamestown, Virginia, by the Dutch in 1619, one year before the arrival of the Mayflower (Bennett, 2003). Although these Africans probably came as indentured servants, the nation's thirst for free labor to fuel European and American capitalism resulted in the enslavement and transport of as many as 15 million Africans to the Caribbean Islands and to the Americas (Franklin, 2007).

Despite having lived under horrific conditions during slavery, and a hundred years of legal second class citizenry thereafter, African Americans “still managed to reinvent themselves, reclaim their humanity and not just survive slavery but create fresh and vibrant responses to American democracy” (Marsalis, Dodson, & Diouf, 2004, p. 11). Hence, African Americans correctly perceive themselves to have contributed significantly to the creation and building of this country. It is perhaps this historical fact that provides a major psychological distinction between African Americans as a group and recent immigrants: African Americans view themselves not as grateful new arrivals to a rich and powerful country, but as major contributors, creators, investors, and builders of America.

Social Political History

Political-legal decisions have been central to African Americans' struggle for equality in America. Accordingly, to understand the present day struggles and frustrations of African Americans it is important to be aware of a few key historical legal landmarks:

Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

During the American civil war (1861–1865), President Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves in the confederacy were free. In reality, however, all slaves in both the North and South were not freed until the end of the war in 1865. African Americans in Texas were among the last to hear that they had been freed. June 19, 1865, commemorates announcement of the end of slavery in Texas, which is why today many African Americans celebrate June 19 or “Juneteenth” as a date of emancipation.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

This Supreme Court decision gave legal mandate to the states to practice racial discrimination against African Americans. It gave sanction to the establishment of what became Jim Crow Law. States were allowed to legally discriminate against African Americans in virtually all areas of public and private life; most importantly, it supported their legal and economic disenfranchisement and personal terrorism against them in many states. The rule of Jim Crow despite considerable opposition from civil right groups remained intact until the 1960s.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Of all the legal decisions that occurred after the emancipation proclamation this was the most important for African Americans. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declared that segregation in public schools was by its nature unequal and unfair—thus should be done away with. There were two goals that advocates of Brown hoped would take place with the passage of this law: greater integration of African American children into the American mainstream and parity with respect to scholarly achievement of these youth. Unfortunately, neither of these goals has been achieved. In 1954 African American students attended schools in which they were the majority of those present. Today African American students are almost as segregated in public school today as they were in 1954. Moreover, there remains a significant educational achievement gap between African American and White youths.

Civil Rights Act (1964)

This Act, which was passed at the height of the civil rights movement, outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions. African Americans could no longer legally be denied to entry to hotels, theaters, restaurants, and other public places where they had formerly been forbidden. However, even today many private (and some public) facilities still resist the admission of African Americans.

Voting Rights Act (1965)

This act removed the last impediments to African Americans' right to vote. The passage of this act resulted in a substantial increase in the numbers of African American elected officials. In particular, its passage had major implications for many areas in southern states where they were the majority of the population but had historically been denied the right to vote.

Fair Housing Act (1968)

Coming on the heels of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the passage of the Fair Housing Act was hailed as a major civil rights triumph. Segregated housing fosters not only segregated schools but also undermines the social and economic opportunities of those who are segregated (Du Bois, 1903; Massey & Denton, 1993; Taeuber & Taeuber, 1965). Unfortunately, the passage of the open housing act has not resulted in an extensively more integrated America (Massey & Denton, 1993). As is true of segregated schools, housing segregation is almost as extensive in 2008 as it was when the open housing act was passed in 1968.

For African Americans the struggle for social, economic, and political justice has not been easy, nor always steady; but rather, it has been characterized by both major advances and setbacks (Klinkner & Smith, 1999). A host of civil rights organizations have been instrumental in this fight. Some of the most notable of these groups have been the NAACP, Urban League, Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Population Characteristics

The nation's nearly 42 million African Americans comprise roughly 13.6% of the American populace. As a group, they are younger than Whites, with a mean age of 31.3 versus Whites' mean age of 38.9 (McKinnon & Bennett, 2005). Historically, African Americans were a rural southern people—this was largely an artifact of their being located in southern slave states. As a result of the “Great Migration” (1916–1930 and 1940–1970)—America's greatest internal migration—(Marsalis et al., 2004) African Americans are now foremost to be found in urban centers (52%) and are almost as likely to be residing outside the south as in it (45% versus 55%.) (McKinnon, 2003; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

African American children make up 15% of American children under 18 years. Thirty-six percent live in married couple households as compared with 76% of Whites, and 63% live in single-parent families as compared with 24% of Whites (McKinnon & Bennett, 2005). Approximately 36% of African American children live below the poverty line (McKinnon & Bennett, 2005). In addition, African American children comprise 30% of the total number of children placed in foster care (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Further, 39% of the children awaiting adoption are African American (Child Welfare League of America, 2006).

Marital Status

African American adults are significantly more likely than others to be single. More specifically, African Americans are less likely to be currently married (44% versus 58% of Whites), more likely to have never been married (41% versus 23% of Whites), and more likely to be divorced (12% versus 10% of Whites) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010; McKinnon & Bennett, 2005). There are a variety of reasons for the high prevalence of singleness among African Americans. One factor that often goes unmentioned is the significant gender imbalance that exists among African Americans. There are two reasons for this imbalance: a high perinatal mortality rate and a high homicide rate among African American males. Black men are 6 times more likely than Whites to be homicide victims, at 19.7 and 3.3 per 1,000,000 respectively (Fox & Zawitz, 2007).

Indications are that since the recording of the census no other major racial group has experienced a severe or persistent gender imbalance (Guttentag & Second, 1983). There are for the ages of 18–44, the most common years marriages occur, only ∼6.6 million African American males as compared with 7.8 million African American females. This results in there being roughly 1.2 million more African American women than men (McKinnon & Bennett, 2005). Irrespective of race or ethnicity, the negative effects of gender imbalances on populations (for example, out of wedlock births, high rates of divorce), have been well documented (Guttentag & Second, 1983).

Moreover, when the factors of education, employment, and incarceration are also considered along with the gender imbalance, the number of “marriageable” African American men available in comparison with the number of “marriageable” African American women drops considerably. In fact, there are estimated to be only half as many African American men who are “suitable” marriage partners as there are suitable African American women. These demographics have resulted in the prediction that as many as a quarter of all African females will remain unmarried (Cherlin, 1992). This prediction is at odds with some research suggesting that over 90% aspire to marry. (Davis, Emanson, & Williams, 1997; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995; Tucker & Taylor, 1987). Thus a disparity appears to exist between what most Blacks would like to happen and what the demographics of the “marital market place” indicate will happen. This is important to keep in mind as it suggests that at least part of the low marriage rate among African Americans is not a matter of morality or attitudes toward marriage but rather a function of demographics.

Family Status

Few issues have received more attention from the profession of social work than the status of the African American family. For good or ill, the state of the African American family has been ever present in practice, research, and policy debates (Billingsley, 1968; Hill, 1972; McAdoo, 2007; Moynihan, 1965; Murray, 1984; Wilson, 1987). While others had for some time studied and written about African American families (Drake & Cayton, 1945/1962; Du Bois, 1903; Frazier, 1932a, 1932b, 1957), it was the Moynihan Report (1965) that catapulted the “Negro” family into national controversy.

At the core of this controversy has been the source of difficulties facing African Americans. Researchers, scholars, policy makers, and practitioners from across the political spectrum have waded into this debate with a host of explanations for and responses to the Moynihan Report. The report identified that 25% of African American families were single-parent families headed mainly by women (the rate for Whites at that time was ∼7%). It argued that a matriarchal family structure and cultural deficits were the source of the social, economic, and educational problems being experienced by these families. It is noteworthy that in 2008 White families on many dimensions, for example, family structure, look very much like “Negro” families did in the 1960s.

Although Moynihan did identify problems in the maintenance and formation of Black families, most social work scholars argue that he misattributed the source of the problems facing Black families. That is, he ascribed Black family problems to sources residing wholly in the family, rather than to factors largely external to it. Many scholars perceived his report as an attack on the Black family, which put some on the defensive. Hence, in response, many Black and White scholars spent decades refuting Moynihan's cultural condemnation of the Black family. They rightfully argued that the Black family had many cultural strengths. This response is best epitomized by Hill's The strengths of Black families (1972). However, it might be argued that in the effort to highlight the cultural strengths and resiliency of Black families that the difficulties which Black families were in fact experiencing were given insufficient attention. Clearly it has been difficult for those wishing to highlight the strengths of the Black family to simultaneously point out the very serious problems that the Black family was experiencing.

The debate as to the source of the problems facing African American families continues. Fundamentally, political conservatives argue that the problems are due to cultural deficits, as proposed by Moynihan, or have been created by the welfare state itself (Murray, 1984). Social workers and their allies appear to have aligned themselves with the structuralist arguments of Wilson (1987, 1996). It is his position that along with continuing and historical racial bias, major changes in the economy (for example, loss of manufacturing jobs) have undermined the economic capabilities of Black males, and with it, their ability to form and maintain families. There does exist strong evidence that among the greatest barriers to Black family formation and maintenance is that there are too few men with too few jobs and insufficient resources (Bowman, 1988, 1993; Mincy, 2006; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995; Wilson, 1996).

Labor Force Participation

Relative to their White counterparts, a smaller proportion of African Americans are employed (53% versus 59.4%), and their unemployment rate is twice as high (13.4% versus 7%) (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Even when race differences in other demographic factors such as geographic residence, education level, and marital status are taken into account, African Americans still are significantly more likely than Whites to be unemployed. Although African Americans' unemployment rate has been nearly twice that of Whites since the 1960s, prior to World War II, Black and White employment rates were roughly equal (Fairlie & Sundstrom, 1999).

The size of race differences in employment often varies by gender. For example, although African Americans, as a group, are less likely than White Americans to be employed, African American women are slightly more likely than White women to be in the labor force (55.3% versus 55%, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Similarly, the types of occupations that African Americans and White Americans hold differ substantially by gender. African American men are most likely to be employed in blue-collar jobs (that is, 26% work as machine operators, fabricators, and laborers), followed by work in service (21%), and sales and administrative support jobs (19%). Compared with White men, a smaller proportion of African American men work in managerial and professional occupations (21% versus 33%) or skilled trade jobs in construction and repair (13% versus 19%). African American women are most likely to be employed in white-collar jobs (33% in sales and administrative support occupations and another 31% in managerial and professional occupations). Compared with White women, however, a larger proportion of African American women work in service occupations (27% versus 18%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005a).

There is much dialogue about the economic split among African Americans that is resulting in a growing middle class and an increasingly disadvantaged underclass. Looking at occupational trends historically, however, the data suggest that most working African Americans fall into neither category (Horton, Allen, Herring, & Thomas, 2000). Prior to 1940, the majority of African Americans worked in “lower class” occupations (that is, those that earned more than one standard deviation below the overall mean income). In fact, in 1920, 50% of African American men and 86% of African American women worked in these occupations, with less than 2% of either gender working in “middle class” occupations (that is, occupations that earned more than one standard deviation above the overall mean income). By 1990, still only 12% of the African American labor force worked in middle class occupations. Since 1970, however, the majority of African American men and women have been solidly working class, working in occupations that earned near the mean income.


African Americans have always earned less than Whites, but after a brief period of increasing wages, the trend toward earnings convergence between African American and White men stopped in the mid-1970s. Among women, however, the earnings of African American females continued to increase through the 1990s and at times rose more rapidly than for White women (Farley, 1996). By 2005 the median earnings for White men who worked full-time year round were $44,850 compared with only $34,433 for African American men (that is, 77% of White men's earnings). Similarly, the median earnings for White women in 2005 was $33,237 compared with only $29,588 for African American women (that is, 89% of White women's earnings) (Webster & Bishaw, 2006).

These race and gender differences in earnings shape the economic status differences of African American and White households and families. In 2005, the median household income in the United States was $50,054. African American households are overrepresented in the lowest income quintile and their income is only 61.62% of White households ($32,229 versus $52,214) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). The race disparity in household income is due, at least in part, to the lower percentage of married couple and multiple-earner households among African Americans. That said, however, even considering per capita income, disparities remain with African Americans earning 58% that of Whites (DeNavas-Walt, Procter, & Lee, 2006). When comparing married couple households and single female-headed households separately, African Americans still earn less than Whites and other racial and ethnic groups, being much less likely to earn more than $75,000 and having household incomes concentrated in the lowest income ranges (Farley, 1996; McKinnon, 2003).

The overall poverty rate for the country was 15% in 2011. Although the numerical majority of the nation's poor are White, the percent of African Americans who were poor was 3 times the percent of Whites who were poor (27.6% versus 9.8%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). African Americans are also more likely to be in extreme poverty (that is, 12% earning less than half of the poverty threshold) (DeNavas-Walt, Procter, & Lee, 2006), and to remain in poverty over time (Naifeh, 1998). Among adult African Americans who reach the age of 75, 91% will have experienced at least one year below the poverty line and 68% will have experienced at least one year in extreme poverty (Rank & Hirschl, 1999).

African American children, in particular, are likely to be poor and remain poor for multiple years (Duncan & Rodgers, 1991). In 2010, 38.2% of African American children lived in poverty, compared with only 17.8% of White children (Macartney, 2011. The consequences of child poverty have been well documented and are often enduring, ranging from low birth weight and poor health outcomes to lower academic achievement, more behavior problems, and lower earnings (Aber, Bennett, Conley, & Li, 1997; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Mayer, 1997).


Both before and after slavery, property ownership has been an aspiration for at least a portion of the African American population. Prior to emancipation, some slaves planted and sold their own crops from gardens, sold their own labor for money, and raised their own livestock. During this same time in the South, free Blacks also acquired property and businesses (Schweninger, 1990). Even in the face of oppressive laws and the indignity of not being recognized as full citizens, the pride and independence of being a landowner was desired and attained by many. In fact, “by 1860, 16,172 free persons of color in the fifteen slave states had accumulated $20,253,200 worth of property, or $1,252 per individual property holder” (Schweninger, 1990, p. 96). African Americans have also been successful entrepreneurs. Pioneers like Madam C. J. Walker and Arthur G. Gatson are well known for being among the first African American millionaires.

In spite of such history and the presence of a few highly visible multimillionaires, African American households today have much lower levels of wealth than their White counterparts. In 2010 the median net worth for African American households was only $4,995, compared with $110,729 for non-Hispanic White households (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Even when controlling for known class correlates such as income, occupation, and education, wealth differences by race persist (Blau & Graham, 1990; Keister, 2000; Oliver & Shapiro, 2006; Shapiro, 2004). In fact, even as income and educational attainment improved for many African Americans in the post–civil rights era, disparities in net worth remained. In an attempt to evaluate the extent of wealth disparities, Haveman and Wolff created a measure of “asset-poverty” (2000). By their definition, a household is asset-poor if it does not have enough wealth to sustain itself at the poverty line for 3 months. Using this framework, African Americans are more than twice as likely to be asset-poor than are non-Hispanic Whites. In 1999, 76% were asset-poor when housing equity was excluded, compared with 32% for Whites (Caner & Wolff, 2004).

Many have tried to understand the intergenerational factors that influence racial differences in wealth. Oliver and Shapiro (2006) identify historical inequities such as racialization of state policy, explicit denial of economic opportunities, and the long-term sedimentation of racial inequality across generations. To provide one specific example, in the late 19th century the Homestead Act failed to provide land to the 4 million newly freed slaves, while in contrast European immigrants received much of the 246 million acres eventually granted to homesteaders (Williams, 2003). But even considering contemporary factors, there appear to be differences by race in how wealth is accumulated. For example, African Americans are less likely to invest in stocks and high-risk, high-return assets (Keister, 2000). This may be because African American children grow up in households where parents are less likely to own stocks, which then in turn influences their own investment decisions (Chiteji & Stafford, 1999). Whites are also more likely than African Americans to receive and expect inheritances (Menchik & Jianakoplos, 1997; Wolff, 2002).

Home equity is an important component of net worth. Although homeownership rates have increased since the mid-1990s, only 48% of African Americans owned their homes by 2005, substantially lower than the U.S. average rate of 69% and that of non-Hispanic Whites at 76% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). In addition to socioeconomic disadvantages, such as earning less income, African Americans also face specific barriers within the housing market. For example, African Americans are more likely to have mortgage applications rejected and to receive less favorable interest rates and other terms when a mortgage is approved (Charles & Hurst, 2002; Krivo & Kaufman, 2004). In addition, even among homeowners, the return on investment is lower for African Americans. Because they are more likely to live in heavily minority and central-city areas, African Americans build less equity for their level of income, education, and length of residence than do non-Hispanic Whites (Krivo & Kaufman, 2004). Taking a life course perspective, Hirschl and Rank (2006) find that Whites are more likely to become homeowners at younger ages than do African Americans. In addition to having a lower likelihood of becoming homeowners across all ages, African Americans are less likely to reach high equity thresholds (such as $100,000), more likely to exit homeownership, and after losing a home are less likely to return to homeownership (Hirschl & Rank, 2006).

About 5% of African American households have a portion of their net worth represented by business equity or a profession, compared with 12% of White households (Leigh, 2006). Yet, the number of businesses owned by African Americans has been increasing over recent decades, growing from 424,000 in 1987 to 1.2 million in 2002, generating revenues of $89 billion. Most African American–owned businesses are small, however, with only 8% having paid employees, but these larger firms employ 754,000 persons and bring in 74.2% of gross receipts (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996, 2006) [see 2006 Census citation on Black-Owned firms below].

Not having independently held wealth (whether precipitated by structural inequities, unemployment, poverty, escalating debt, low savings, or slowly appreciating home equity) puts extraordinary stress on African American individuals, children, and families. Economic insecurity makes planning for the future difficult and creates strain within romantic relationships. Growing up in households with little or no wealth has a negative impact on children (Conley, 1999; Williams Shanks, 2007). In fact, Conley (1999) finds that racial differences in net worth, high school graduation, college graduation, repeating a grade, labor force participation, wages, welfare receipt, and female premarital childbearing between Whites and African Americans are either no longer significant or dramatically lessen once parental wealth is considered. Shapiro (2004) makes a similar case using qualitative interviews to demonstrate how parents use either personal wealth or money inherited from their parents' wealth to create transformative opportunities for children, particularly via enrollment in better schools.

Sherraden (1991) theorizes that owning assets has a range of positive benefits: economic, psychological, social, and political. When a poor person with no assets starts on the road to building assets, it can create hope for the future, improve current well-being and lead others to view the person differently as well (Schreiner & Sherraden, 2007; Sherraden, 1991). If one wants to dramatically alter the opportunities available to all African Americans regardless of circumstances and across generations, the focus should be on reducing the wealth gap. The persistent racial disparities that exist in wealth have hampered sustained economic prosperity, even among those that might otherwise appear successful. Changing this reality is the next frontier for civil rights.


On average, persons who do better in school and who attain higher levels of education earn more, have better mental and physical health, and are less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than their less-educated counterparts. A high school diploma is the basic educational requirement for employment and admission to college and educational programs. Nationally, 82% of 18–24-year-old African Americans have earned a high-school diploma or general educational development (GED) credential, but they still lag behind Whites' high school completion rate of 92% (Hoffman & Llagas, 2003).

At the college level, the proportions of African Americans who have earned degrees has increased over time, but those who have earned associate degrees has exceeded the proportions who have earned bachelor's degrees. Despite the fact that a growing proportion of African college students attend predominantly White institutions, nearly a quarter of bachelor's degrees are earned at historically Black colleges and universities (Hoffman & Llagas, 2003). Although the percentage of African Americans who have completed college has increased significantly over time, they are still much less likely than Whites to have completed college (18% in 2000 versus 34%) (Hoffman & Llagas, 2003). Moreover, there exists a considerable gender disparity in college graduation among African Americans, with two-thirds (66%) of bachelor's degrees being earned by females (Peter & Horn, 2005).

Criminal Justice

America's incarceration rate has increased by 500% over 30 consecutive years, resulting in the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.2. million people currently incarcerated (The Sentencing Project, 2010). Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, African Americans are significantly more likely to be incarcerated. Because African Americans are particularly over-represented among drug offenders, they have disproportionately born the consequences of the nation's drug-related social policies. As a result, although African Americans are only 13% of the total United States population, they were 28% of persons arrested and 40% of persons who were incarcerated in 2005. If incarceration rates remain the same in the future, it is estimated that 19% of African Americans (32.2% of men and 5.6% of women) born in 2001 will spend time in prison (Bonczar, 2003).

The overinvolvement of African Americans in the criminal justice system has tremendous social, health, economic, and political consequences that are of central concern to social workers (Wheelock, 2005). Some of the most pressing social consequences of incarceration include its negative impact on children and families. Incarceration breaks up families, harms children's mental health, often places them in unstable out-of-home living arrangements or foster care, and it greatly increases the probability that children will engage in problem behaviors such as delinquency and substance abuse that may ultimately lead to their own incarceration (Freudenberg, 2001). Other consequences of incarceration include job loss, limited employability, individual, familial, and neighborhood stigma, and the inability to vote, to sit on juries, or to run for public office (Freudenberg, 2001). Taken in total, the causes and consequences of African Americans' involvement with the criminal justice system are among the most pressing issues that face the African American community and they are issues to which social work researchers and practitioners should exert much greater attention.


Relative to their White counterparts, African Americans live sicker and die younger. For example, the average life expectancy of the an African American born in 2004 is 73 years compared with 78 years for a White American (National Center for Health Statistics, 2006). African Americans are more likely than White Americans to die from heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide (National Center for Health Statistics). Infant mortality is also significantly higher among African Americans than among Whites (National Center for Health Statistics, 2006). Overall, the race gap in mortality results in 83,570 excess African American deaths each year (Satcher et al., 2005). Consistent with their higher rates of mortality and morbidity, African Americans receive lower quality health care and have less access to care than do White Americans (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

At least five explanations have been given to explain the consistent finding of race differences in illness and death. These explanations include differences in genetic factors, health behaviors (for example, smoking), socioeconomic status, psychosocial stress (for example, discrimination), and structural factors (Dressler, Oths, & Gravlee, 2005). Research on the extent to which these various potential explanations help to account for race differences in morbidity and mortality suggest that genetic and health behavior models have relatively little explanatory power. Instead, health disparities appear to result largely from historical and contemporary discrimination (that is, racism), which result in structural level social and economic inequalities for African Americans. These inequalities, in turn, disproportionately place African Americans in stressful life circumstances that generate race disparities in health (Dressler et al., 2005). Accordingly, efforts to reduce and eliminate race disparities in health will have to address societal level racism and race disparities in the structural factors that cause them.

Mental Health

Approximately 26% of American adults—58 million people—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder (Kessler, Chiu, Demler, & Walters, 2005). Because of their history of racial oppression and the contemporary results of past discrimination (for example, residential segregation), African Americans are often thought to be at elevated risk for mental health problems. Despite this expectation, surveys of the general population suggest that mental disorders, including alcohol and substance dependence are no more, and in some instances are less prevalent among African Americans than among Whites (Kessler et al., 2005; Sue & Chu, 2003). Despite having comparable rates of mental health disorders to Whites, African Americans are less likely than their White counterparts to use mental health services, are more likely to terminate services prematurely, to be misdiagnosed, to use emergency and primary care providers rather than mental health providers, and are overrepresented in inpatient treatment versus outpatient treatment (Snowden, 2001; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Potential barriers to the availability, accessibility, and utilization of mental health services by African Americans include the lack of services in their communities, their lack of insurance with which to pay for services, and stigma and other attitudes associated with mental illness (Snowden, 2001; Sue & Chu, 2003; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

African Americans' relatively low rates of mental disorders, despite their disproportionate exposure to mental health disorder risk factors, clearly merits further study. Existing research suggests that family, friends, and religiosity, as expressed through prayer, scripture study, attendance at religious services, and social support from church members and clergy, are critical to African American coping strategies (Snowden, 2001; Taylor, Ellison, Chatters, Levin, & Lincoln, 2000). In light of the growing body of research that finds a positive relationship between religiosity and mental health, physical health, academic achievement, marital stability, and other prosocial behaviors, African American's relatively high levels of religiosity and church involvement may help to explain why their rates of substance abuse, suicide, mental illness and other problems are not substantially higher than those of Whites (Johnson, Tompkins, & Webb, 2002; Taylor et al., 2000; Wallace, Brown, Bachman, & LaVeist, 2003; Wallace, Myers, & Osai, 2004).

Religion and the African American Church

Based upon traditional measures of religiosity, African Americans are the most religious people in America. For example, compared with Whites, African Americans report higher rates of church attendance, prayer, church membership, reading religious materials, watching religious broadcasts, church leadership roles, hours of volunteer church service, and ascribing importance to religion (Krause, 2006; Taylor, Chatters, Jayakody, & Levin, 1996). The importance of religion to many African Americans is undoubtedly rooted in the fact that, historically, churches were among the first independent institutions built, owned, and controlled by African Americans. Because of racial barriers to their participation in the larger society, churches became the center of the African American community and the birthplace of African American entrepreneurship, leadership development, education, politics, and culture (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990).

Although opportunities for African Americans' involvement and leadership in the broader culture have expanded tremendously, churches continue to be the primary sources and targets of African Americans' philanthropy, volunteerism, and civic engagement (Barnes, 2004; Billingsley, 1999, Boddie, 2005). That said, however, some scholars suggest that there is a growing disaffection and disconnection between the church and an increasing proportion of African Americans, particularly the young (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Smith & Jackson, 2006). According to some, one of the greatest challenges to the importance of religion and faith among young people is the emergence of hip–hop culture (Smith & Jackson, 2006). In spite of this concern, however, given African Americans' high levels of religiosity and the continued importance of churches in African American communities, there is a tremendous opportunity for the social work profession to partner with African American churches and other faith-based organizations to accomplish their shared missions to help children, families, the elderly, and other socially and economically disadvantaged populations.


From the first Africans to set foot on American soil more than 400 years ago to the children who have been born since 2000, African Americans have been and will continue to be an integral part of the history and vibrancy of the United States. The place of African Americans in U.S. society has gone through several radical transitions: from the forced imposition of chattel slavery to the strict enforcement of legal segregation to a tenuous acceptance as equal citizens. But in spite of the hard fought political and social battles to attain a formal legal status, African Americans continue to face barriers in their struggle for parity with their White counterparts.

When reviewing the important indicators that document quality of life and economic resources, African Americans often fall woefully short of national averages. Whether the measure is family stability, employment, income, wealth, education, incarceration rates, or health, persistent disparities exist for African Americans. Although there are many strengths that can be built upon and areas that provide hope such as enduring religiosity, resilient mental health, and internationally recognized contributions to the diverse richness of arts and culture, it would be short-sighted to ignore the continuing struggles faced by African Americans. The challenge for social work is to simultaneously celebrate the historical successes and ongoing contributions of African Americans to this country while also recognizing the vestiges of structural racism and fighting for greater civil rights and economic justice.


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